Crooked FingersCity: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Venue: The Middle East
The Underground Might Be Overcrowded, But Eric Bachmann Is Poised to Lift Himself Out of the Indie Rock Gutter With Beautiful Tales About Ugly People What do Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen have in common? They are all frequently used as benchmarks to describe the music of ex-Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann's newest project, Crooked Fingers. While these are certainly flattering comparisons, it would seem only a matter of time before the unique music of Eric Bachmann is described on its own merit. The fact that Bachmann has hidden behind quirky band names his entire career hasn't helped make him a household name. And during the Archers' 1990s run, the band was personally courted by Madonna to sign with her own Maverick label, but the indie-spirited group opted to remain on the tiny Alias label, which undoubtedly salvaged their credibility but stunted their celebrity. In interviews, it seems as though Bachmann is intent on distancing himself from his Archers of Loaf period, almost to the extent that he is probably doing a disservice to the band's legacy. Claiming that their sound now seems dated, the Archers' oddly melodic blend of noise-folk tends to hold up quite nicely over time, particularly their classic debut from 1992, Icky Mettle. Bachmann's stance is likely more a display of conviction in his new direction than a condemnation of his past musical life. Cut to 2000, and Crooked Fingers' self-titled debut (Warm Records) is released with little fanfare or publicity. The stunning work, comprised of ten spare tales of the downtrodden, turned down the amps considerably and relied on chiming or finger-picked guitars, strings, atmospheric keyboards, and light percussion that hit every bit as hard as any sonic blast from the Archers catalog. 2001's prompt successor, Bring on the Snakes, followed a similar formula but with a sparser sound. Then, an EP of cover favorites (Reservoir Songs on Merge) by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Queen/David Bowie preceded his latest full-length effort, the masterful Red Devil Dawn, on which Bachmann expands his musical palette by incorporating Latin-flavored horns and curious rhythms into songs of a more personal nature. Bachmann, who handles lead vocals and guitar, and his evolving cast of directionally- impaired digits, which on this tour consists of Jo Jameson on upright bass, Barton "The White Wolf" Carroll on guitar/harmonica, and Dov Friedman on drums, display a more raucous attitude than previous incarnations of the band, and as such, they came into town amid high expectations. These expectations were generated not by music industry PR firms or cannibalistic media hype, but simply by the band's very own past performances. They have been known to descend into the audience and play a few unamplified tunes on nothing more than a banjo and stand-up bass. At a recent show in Northampton, Massachusetts, where smoking in bars will earn you a day in the stockade, Bachmann reportedly took his act outside on a wintry New England evening so that he might enjoy a smoke. Ask anyone who's seen them, if you can find someone: your local record store clerk maybe, a relative in college perhaps, or by chance a co-worker? The odds are very high that they walked away from the performance enormously awed. The evening's performance began with the unlikely choice of a stripped down version of the lush ballad "Disappear" from Red Devil Dawn, which featured Carroll's austere slide guitar accompanying Bachmann's despondent vocals. An up tempo but still reserved "Crowned in Chrome" followed, preceding another classic ballad for the world-weary, "Broken Man", whose lush strings, soothing rhythm, and gentle finger-picked melody serve as the perfect accompaniment to Bachmann's falsetto. Trading in his guitar for a cigarette and a Budweiser, Bachmann seemed to embrace the role of a swaggering Vegas lounge singer on "New Drink for the Old Drunk", a love song of a different sort. The rearranged dirge "Black Black Ocean" sounded downright poppy if you didn't listen too closely to the forlorn lyrics, and the stark "Boy with (100) Hands", one of Bachmann's less endearing ballads, received a nice shot in the arm courtesy of Carroll's harmonica solo. If you happened to step into the rest room, you may have thought that Jimmy Buffett made a guest appearance on stage, as the live treatment of the new track "You Threw a Spark" took on an air of a more playful "Margaritaville". What must be considered the undisputable centerpiece of a Crooked Fingers show is "The Rotting Strip", where a swirling cacophony of guitars seemingly parallels the chaos in the lives of the song's two characters, and the cathartic call to quit smoking (and seemingly too many other vices to list here) sounds as though it were delivered with the entire band hanging from the edge of a cliff. The band has also developed a knack for playing extraordinary cover songs, which in the past have included Johnny Cash's "Long Black Veil" and Bruce Springsteen's "The Promised Land". This show's choice was the surprising but no less impressive take on New Order's "Age of Consent", where the keyboard sounds were capably provided by electronically altering the sound of Jameson's stand-up bass. The set neared conclusion with the rowdy swamp-stomp of "Red Devil Dawn", an early period B-side not actually found on its namesake album, and the final song performed was a revved-up rendition of "Big Darkness", one of the few Bachmann-penned songs that (contrary to the title) has a light of the end of the tunnel. Based on the inventive rearrangements of songs in their set list, it is clear that this is a band that is not just going through the motions onstage. What is not so clear is how long it will take, if ever, for Crooked Fingers to emerge from cult status. If Bachmann should spend many more years toiling in obscurity, it would not be too surprising. However, one can only hope that Bachmann does not turn into a browbeaten character in one of his songs, assuming that it is not too late.