Trans Am

[27 June 2002]

By Andrew Watson

Smiling faces in Detroit? People everywhere? Parents and kids walking downtown at night? What . . . ? A thought occurs to me that perhaps I am still home in bed, not actually on my way to see Trans Am at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit, why on Earth would there be so many happy people down in the depths of Amityville? Then, like a flash of red and white it hits me . . . hockey. The Detroit Red Wings are poised to claim the NHL’s prized Stanley Cup tonight, at the Joe Louis Arena, a mere quarter-mile from my chosen destination. I am literally surrounded by hockey fans-this begins a train of thought that I will find myself referencing many times over the course of the evening . . . specifically, how might this affect me and my immediate safety. After all, I am here to see a band play a show. I am not particularly eager to deal with drunken and disorderly Red Wing fans as they take over the streets and start setting fires (which I assume they are prone to doing). After all, this city doesn’t get a whole lot to get worked up about, hell, there is usually nobody down here but the bums, but tonight is different . . . something could happen tonight.

I park amidst RVs and tailgating jersey wearers. They are grilling sausages and drinking Miller Lites, sharing the glow of their portable TVs with the local street bums. This is a strange sight to see on the corner of Congress and Brush, but they seem friendly enough. I remind myself that the game has yet to begin, and head for the calm refuge of St. Andrews Hall.

Once inside, it’s just another night. A modest crowd of hipsters and college kids has gathered, seemingly oblivious to the Red Wing fever that has so engulfed their city. It’s very comforting. I begin to relax a bit, excited to see Trans Am, a band who on two previous engagements had cancelled gigs I was to attend. After a disappointingly dull set by local duo Adult, Trans Am made their way to the stage. A quick word about Trans Am, visually. Imagine if three of those jocks from the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog were suddenly reborn as progressive rock musicians. Headband firmly in place, sleeveless white T-shirt, warm-ups, brand spanking new Air Jordans—and that’s just bassist/synth guy Nathan Means. These guys are either way in love with themselves, or their sense of humor is unlike that of any band likely to grace the stage at St. Andrews. They remind me of the rappers you see on BET, sipping Crystal and rolling around in their Bentley’s. Then they start to play, of course, and everything else is just window dressing.

They start with the madly percussive synth jive of “Bonn/Basta”, from their new record TA. Trans Am would be nowhere without drummer/programmer/part-time vocalist Sebastian Thomson. He is the show; center stage, shirtless, and just plain mad. Turning snare rolls into drum machine patterns and back again, Thomson is Trans Am’s engine, so to speak. Trans Am excels at blending up-tempo indie rock instrumentals with pre-programmed Kraftwerk meditations—vocoder included. As they roll into the Dr. Dre-inspired G-funk jam, “Cologne”, from 1997’s excellent release, Surrender to the Night the crowd is fully engaged. Everyone seems to be dancing the same way, as if this particularly odd music is capable of presenting a universal vibe, easily tapped into by anyone, no matter your background.

They sample heavily from their catalogue, and the 1980s are represented well through numbers like “Cold War” and “Love Commander”. I begin to wonder if the band’s M.O. isn’t to plow through every musical style available to them, all through the course of one 90-minute show. So far they have touched on rock ‘n’ roll, (guitarist Philip Manley’s vicious soloing), new wave, techno, funk, and salsa. After a quick break, they return and promise one more song. They thank us for letting them share our “special” night with them. I interpret this as a reference to the slaughter no doubt taking place at Joe Louis Arena, and wonder for a second whether anything is burning yet . . . I am yanked back into the now by the title track to Future World; as usual, I find myself watching Sebastian Thomson, who I have now decided is one of the coolest drummers I have ever seen. He not only provides backbeat and direction from his stool, but also provides the show—tossing and twirling his sticks, enjoying himself! Nothing against sad rockers and shoe gazers, but it’s great to be able to go to a show and dance without feeling like you are pissing someone off in back of you who is trying to watch the band. It’s much more rewarding to feel the band.

The show ends despite several pleas from the audience for more. It seems that I am not the only one looking to prolong the show, fully dreading my imminent dealings with drunken and deliriously joyful hockey fans. It appears as though the Wings did indeed win the Cup. I gather this by peeking my head out the door just in time to see a pickup truck full of middle-aged women, with a homemade aluminum foil-sided Stanley Cup strapped in back, driving down the middle of East Congress, occasionally hoisting their jerseys to reveal their middle-aged chests. Even the bums are holding their hands out for a high-five, not a handout. As our little crowd of rock and rollers file out into the madness of this, a sense of calm pervades. Certainly, we all have our stimulants. Music inspires the same sense of loyalty and passion in some people that sports do in others. Trans Am may have absolutely nothing in common with the Detroit Red Wings, but on this night, fans of both found themselves sharing a common feeling of exhilarating fulfillment. As long as it’s someone else’s car that gets torched . . .

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