Five years in the making, Martha Davis & the Motels made a triumphant return to New York City.
This has been a good year for Martha Davis and the Motels. Based on the west coast, Davis and her band have been on the road non-stop since January. Rosanna Arquette and Linda Perry introduced the group's historic performance at Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood to celebrate the venue’s 50th anniversary. Following a spring tour of Australia, the group joined the Go-Go’s, Scandal, Cutting Crew, and Naked Eyes for the month of July before heading to the east coast in August. It was five years in the making, but Martha Davis and the Motels finally made their return to New York City. To say it was worth the wait would be an understatement.
Davis led a rousing set that explored the band’s 35-year discography. A pair of new songs also burnished their legacy as icons who’ve continued to grow and expand their sound beyond the new wave era. At the same time, their earliest material off The Motels (1979) still sounds fresh and holds its own in 2014. The word "timeless" is often bandied about when describing music of established acts but the term truly applies to the Motels. At Iridium Jazz Club, the ferocity of the band’s playing brought depth and energy to more than three decades of material.
An air of suspense shrouded the very beginning of the show, with ambient keyboard tones suffusing Iridium's intimate setting. The band took the stage and launched into a solid groove as the familiar music box melody of “Suddenly Last Summer” pierced the anticipation. Davis approached the mic -- “It happened one summer” -- and immediately held the audience in her hand. Originally the lead single off Little Robbers (1983), “Suddenly Last Summer” remains a unique treasure among Davis’ self-penned compositions. Remarkably, the band even replicated the cool, crisp, and somewhat melancholy atmosphere of the studio version.
The Motels reached back to Careful (1980) for “Party Professionals”, a track that foreshadowed the gritty disco-infused grooves of groups like the Rapture and Franz Ferdinand by 25 years. Bassist Brady Wills and drummer Nic Johns stayed true to the rhythm while Davis described the characters who’ve “got tongues like sharpened knives”. Marty Jourard, the band’s original keyboardist and saxophone player, and guitarist Clint Walsh each laid down a solo that rendered the frenzied tableaux of Davis’ lyrics.
“Dressing Up” was the first of several songs that the group revisited from their self-titled debut. Davis doubled on vocals and guitar, fully personifying her role as one of rock’s most commanding front persons. Jourard faithfully reproduced the eerie keyboard phrasings of the bridge, which was the perfect harbinger to the sinister plot line that followed in “So L.A.”. Indeed, the band harnessed the edgy energy of “Dressing Up” into one of the most durable and socially incisive cuts off All Four One (1982). With its portrait of Hollywood’s nefarious allure, “So L.A.” still raises an eyebrow.
Face to face on their guitars, Davis and Walsh triggered “Closets and Bullets”, one of the classic album cuts off The Motels. Both on record and in concert, the song captured the quality of Davis’ voice that conveys ache and yearning. “Changes come like bullets / Shock but no pain / Dearie me I’m alone again,” she sang, wringing every bit of emotion from the words. Walsh closed the song with one of the evening’s many gripping guitar solos, shredding and thrashing about yet retaining the spirit of the song’s anguish.
“Another tragically sad song” were the words Davis used to introduce “Celia”, another cut from the band’s eponymous debut. Davis excels in character studies and “Celia” stands among the more devastating entries in her library of songs. If the sparseness of the groove belied the lyrics' undertones of betrayal and violence, then Davis' animated performance made them clear. Stationed at the edge of the stage, her face registered simmering rage in her readings of "You made him so sad / You got him so mad / You better be careful / He could hurt you."
When Walsh played the first three notes of "Total Control", he promptly kindled an ardent response from the audience. Though the song broke the Motels in Australia, where it reached the Top 10 in 1979, it's now become something of an "honorary" hit in the Motels' homeland, with everyone from Tina Turner to Amanda Palmer having wrapped their voices around Davis' lyrics. At Iridium, "Total Control" showed no signs of age. Brady Wills and Nic Johns maintained the song's understated groove while Davis got into character as the song's distressed protagonist. Thirty-five years later, the Motels prove that sometimes less really is more. "Total Control" remains a riveting experience.
Over the past couple of years, Davis has often discussed a jazz album she's recorded, I Have My Standards, which also features musical contributions from Marty Jourard. Performing "Mr. Grey", Davis and Jourard gave a preview of what listeners might be able to expect on the currently unreleased album. The singer's nuanced vocals created an entire mood with the line, "It's a sad night Mr. Grey, I hear your baby's gone and left you", illustrating how well-suited her voice is to jazz. Midway through the song, Johns took the reins from behind the keys as Jourard stepped forward and further embellished the song's noir sensibility with his saxophone solo.
"Take the L" signaled the group's glory days as MTV darlings, a time when Davis' impassioned performance established her as the Edith Piaf of New Wave and All Four One marked the group's step towards a more commercial sound after the shelved Apocalypso (1981) project. However, "Take the L" has long since transcended its '80s roots and grown into a hard rocking anthem for scorned lovers. Returning to Careful, the band delivered one of their best songs from any Motels album, "Danger". Davis had originally penned the song with the Pointer Sisters in mind during the vocal trio's late '70s rock phase. Instead, the band fashioned some of their most contagious hooks into three-and-a-half minutes and "Danger" became the lead track on Careful. Translated to 2014, the guitar riff has lost none of its bite.
It seemed only fitting that a glass on Marty Jourard's keyboard fell and shattered into shards during "Where Do We Go From Here (Nothing Sacred)". Never has a more frenetic pulse reverberated through Iridium than the group's live rendition of the opening track off Little Robbers. The urgency of Davis' vocal powered the pulse of the song right in step with Johns' unyielding drum beat. Her brilliant wordplay about "men of the cloth" is as searing and timely as ever.
If any song from the early '80s qualifies as a modern standard it's "Only the Lonely". Another Davis original, the song is a classic that's also survived a seemingly infinite number of musical trends. Whether the unvarnished perfection of the original on Apocalypso, the Top 10 hit version from All Four One, or the band's note-perfect rendition at Iridium, "Only the Lonely" is the kind of song that fits any musical setting in any era and in any style. It's just that good.
Earlier in the show, Davis announced that the Motels are in the process of recording an album. If that set contains either of the new songs Davis and the band performed at Iridium, "Criminal" and the outstanding "Lucky Stars", there should be another Motels classic ready for release by 2015. In all senses of the word, "vacancy" is the last thing that could ever afflict the Motels.