The Mendoza Line

[17 June 2004]

By Matt Gonzales

Greil Marcus, that de facto God of rock criticism, has spoken so well of the Mendoza Line that during a brief pre-show conversation at the Bluebird in Bloomington, Indiana, singer-songwriter Shannon McArdle said to me, smiling modestly: “He makes me blush.”

There isn’t a rock critic alive that you can unequivocally trust, but Marcus comes close. However, if you need another reason to give the Mendoza Line a chance, then how about their selfless, spotlight sharing ways? The band boasts three great singer-songwriters: the aforementioned McArdle, as well as Timothy Bracy and Peter Hoffman. All of them are plenty capable of running their own show, yet they admirably put their egos aside to make room for one another. The only drawback to this is that each of them only writes four or five songs per album, which isn’t nearly enough—especially if you prize one of their talents above the rest, as we humans tend to do.

The solution? The next album should be a double. Speaking of the next album, when I arrived at the Bluebird, I walked straight to the merch table, which was manned by a disarmingly cute woman. I straightaway asked her if she had Fortune (the Mendoza Line’s new album) for sale. She frowned a bit, apologized, and explained that unfortunately it wouldn’t be available until August. Then, with much more kindness than was necessary, she pointed to a sign below my nose that, had I read it, would have spared us the exchange we were at the moment engaged in. She started explaining how they had released Fortune in England, and they had planned to sell it on this tour, but, well…

Her explanation continued, but I stopped listening. My ill-equipped mind was busy working through the logic that much too slowly informed me that I was talking to Shannon McArdle of the Mendoza Line.

As it turns out, although the band is about as democratic as they come, McArdle is the leader of their live show. Once she moved from the merch table to the stage, she stood in its center, holding a tambourine at her right hip and wooing the audience with coy yet commanding presence. Meanwhile Hoffman and Bracy stood to her left with guitars—Hoffman’s an electric, Bracy’s acoustic—while bassist Paul Deppler stood directly behind McArdle and in front of drummer Sean Fogerty. To McArdle’s left, on lead guitar, was a gentleman who McArdle knows a little something about sharing space with: her twin brother Phil, who happened to be making his live debut with band.

The show started off with a dusky sounding track off of the upcoming Fortune. The audience, the greater part of which clearly was hearing the band for the first time, was courteously quiet. But when the band followed that with yet another quiet one—the despairing dirge “Queen of England” sung by Bracy—the crowd quickly went from politely tranquil to irritatingly chatty. Exacerbating things, at least for me, was the inadequate volume of Bracy’s mic—his whispery, inconsolable voice and lovely acid lyrics are my favorite thing about the band. I wasn’t surprised that the audience didn’t share my spellbound enthusiasm, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing about murdering the loud, short, bald-headed bastard standing diagonally to my left, behind me.

After a few more songs—a couple from the upcoming Fortune, a couple of older ones, and a couple more from the indubitably excellent Lost in Revelry (including a tantalizing acoustic version of the McArdle-sung “Something Dark”)—Bracy channeled a Let it Be-era Paul Westerberg as he howled the bitter barroom sing-a-long “Damn Good Disguise”. Bracy twitched, tautened, and glared at McArdle (his girlfriend) with Lindsey Buckingham-like ferocity as he and the rest of the band brought the joint down.

The band closed their set with Peter Hoffman singing the solipsistic anthem “We’re All in This Alone.” During the chorus of that song, Hoffman sung “Everybody thinks that/We’re in this together/Everybody wishes/Always together/But we’re all in this alone,” and thinking about it now, I wonder how much those lyrics might be about the band itself. I wonder how much of the greatness of the Mendoza Line is due to behind-the-scenes hostility that almost certainly exists. But in the end that’s just so much lazy speculation. All that matters is that the Mendoza Line is one of my favorite bands, and that’s awfully damn important—who cares how they accomplish it?

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