City: San Francisco Venue: Bottom of the Hill Date: 2004-04-25
In the song "April 14th, Part I", country songstress Gillian Welch sings about the many miseries of being a touring band. Seeing the Figgs, Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers, and Jake Brennan of Jake Brennan and the Confidence Men on tour last month put that song into stark context. Welch sings about scraping together cash for gas, playing to wee crowds, splitting an equally wee take with all the bands on the bill, and getting no acknowledgement, much less respect, from the press. On the sunny Sunday afternoon in question, the bands were 2700 miles from home, halfway through a 21-city national tour, and playing at 6 p.m. to a crowd that never swelled beyond 50 people. There were die-hard fans in attendance, but the audience seemed to lack fresh blood or new ears, save for the dates and spouses of the aforementioned and aging die-hards.
After cataloguing the malaise of life on the road, Welch sings longingly, "But I watched them walk / Through the bottom land / And I wished that I played / In a rock and roll band." True to form, these guys made the sentiment ring true by completely rocking the house. Their passion for the music, coupled with the ardor of the fans and the all-too-rare bonding that occurs with five guys stuck in a van together for weeks on end, is an alchemically flawless formula for rock and roll gold.
Seeing the Figgs and Mike Viola on tour is like a return to a simpler time. The musicians' names range from Pete to Mike and back, twice. Throw in Boston's Jake Brennan to the mix and still you have a nice traditional slice of Americana. Where Brennan plays a smattering of roots and rockabilly, both Viola (who records as the Candy Butchers, but used the Figgs' Petes as his backing band on this tour) and the Figgs play variations on hyper-enthusiastic power pop. Viola has the air of a natural showman, and an off-kilter persona that complements his musical prowess. Apparently the boys bought a Korg synthesizer somewhere on the road, and Viola took great joy in tinkering with the sound of his set. Viola put this new toy to the test by composing off-the-cuff tunes about his bandmates, their food and the instrument itself. Viola's set covered songs from his entire catalog, much to the delight of the crowd, nearly all Candy Butcher veterans. Before launching into an older song, Viola somewhat facetiously asked the crowd, "How many of you know me? [cheers, applause] How many of you know my old stuff? [more cheers] How old? ['All of it!']" He needn't have asked. The crowd knew every song, and in the case of the Figgs, cheered especially hard for songs on the as-yet-unreleased Palais. But Viola plowed through his melodic, confessional pop songs with great pleasure, and the crowd devoured every minute of it.
The Figgs took charge of the club with their pitch-perfect power pop. These guys play rock like a snapshot from an earlier time, before rock was concerned with any "indie" or "alternative" elements. They embrace an abundance of rock staples -- from leaping up on the monitors for slightly distorted guitar solos to two guys singing on one microphone -- that embody an elemental essence of rock. The Figgs' music also skims along the surface of rock history, unwilling to fit a niche beyond a semi-generic "rock." Its saving grace is that the band executes these songs so perfectly and with so much pure emotion that one can't help but be enthralled with such mastery of the pop form.
This tour is also a remarkable testament to tenacity in music. Between the two headliners there are decades of experience -- the Figgs alone are celebrating their 17th anniversary as a band in 2004. Both bands have had their brushes with fame and success, but thanks to the wanton vicissitudes of the music industry are still languishing in semi-obscurity. With the release earlier this year of the Candy Butchers' Hang on Mike and the May 18th release of the Figgs' Palais, the bands will hopefully get some much-deserved exposure. In the meantime, make sure you grab a front-row seat if you're in the path of their ongoing tour. It's a refresher course on what rock's all about.
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