The Long Winters

[6 August 2003]

By Cori Taratoot

S E T    L I S T
Scared Straight
Blue Diamonds
It’ll Be a Breeze
Car Parts
New Girl
Medicine Cabinet Pirates

John Roderick’s calloused feet walked from Istanbul to Amsterdam. John Roderick’s soiled fingers plunked keys for Harvey Danger. John Roderick’s baby feet slipped out of the mucousy womb into his mother’s arms somewhere in Alaska. John Roderick’s brain matter absorbed higher education in the hallways of University of Washington, and John Roderick’s liver absorbed buckets of liquor on the streets of Seattle. John Roderick’s got his big hands on a guitar, and now he’s got his band and a bunch of songs ripe for ascension and adoration.

There’s a story to tell about John Roderick, a story of an eccentric, an underdog, a reluctant songwriter sitting in a room writing songs on his guitar, a guy who, without the help of his friends, would remain a wandering pauper. But tonight, the Long Winters are just a great pop band rooted in the friendship of two guys who shared a tour bus in the late 1990s.

Sean Nelson (the former frontman of Harvey Danger) is now John Roderick’s sideman, his keyboardist, his fall guy. Back in the day, Roderick was Nelson’s touring keyboardist for Harvey Danger. Flip-flop. Before the show tonight, Nelson is the guy sitting by the T-shirt table scribbling down the set list with a Sharpie. And when the band swaps instruments mid-set so Roderick can execute his keyboard part in “Blue Diamonds”, Nelson’s loaner bass destroys the tune with disastrous mistaken feedback. But Roderick just smiles and improvs a freaky genius keyboard part. On another night Roderick might be the grump, and Nelson might save the night with his exuberance and overt attempts to seduce the crowd with clever asides.

The Long Winters’ sound is jangly Rickenbacker guitar, sweet harmonies, and a sliver of mystery. Nelson and Roderick share vocal duties, engaging each other in lyrical lines entirely dissimilar and perfectly melodic. Tonight, songs like “Scared Straight” and “New Girl” show off the pair’s affection for Stipe/Mills-influenced trade-offs. “New Girl” has the pair screaming “Do you know who you are?” at each other, and in “Scared Straight” Roderick and Nelson finish each others sentences:

“Can you wait?/ Can you stand it?/ Are you brave or are you, scared straight, scared straight?
(she didn’t want you to!)
Speak right/
(she didn’t want you to!)
Be strong/
(she didn’t want you to!)
Act nice/
(she didn’t want you to!)
Take so long/
(she didn’t want you to!)
Call time/
(she didn’t want you to!)
Seem tired/
(she didn’t want you to!)
Leave mad/
(she didn’t want you to!)
Get so wired.”

This is the first night of the Long Winters tour opening for Clem Snide, a sleepy country pop band from Brooklyn, and Roderick wants to make a good impression. Amplification gremlins aside, the band pulls off a monstrous set, both passionate and tight. And there is a self-consciousness present: members of Clem Snide are in the audience, watching. Roderick can’t resist digging into Portland’s restrained temper. He’s egging on the twirling groupie in the front row, the one calling out for tunes from the band’s first record, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. And, in the end, he obliges her request.

“When we come here we try to create a mood,” teases Roderick. “We try to send it out, like a virus. To date, we’ve been largely unsuccessful.” At a show a few weeks earlier, Roderick managed to uncoil the tightly-wound Portland crowd by telling tales of the road: “Oh, this awkward silence, Portland, this is nothing. Try playing on a Wednesday night in Cleveland, Ohio.”

So the story goes: the Seattle music scene jumped in and throttled John Roderick, forced him and his massive talent into the studio, brought in a herd of (semi) famous Pacific Northwest emo-geeks, and started making some seriously fun pop music. Pete Buck (Minus 5, R.E.M.) was there, and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie, Postal Service) and Chris Walla too. Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Joe Bass (Sunny Day Real Estate), Jim Roth (Built to Spill), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), and Brian Young (Fountains of Wayne, Posies) played their parts. The final studio pieces are layered, attended to carefully without excessive obvious production tricks. There are horns, and doubled (tripled?) vocal tracks. But you’re not cognizant of the wizardry.

John Roderick’s biography and his ability to attract a cluster of familiars from the indie rock community aside, the Long Winters stand apart from the crop of mediocre 1960s pop revivalists on the merits of their songs alone. When I Pretend To Fall is packed with smart, dense, and hopeful tracks. Even more exciting—those same songs are bigger and more alive on stage than anything yet captured in the studio. This is a band to watch.”

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