Boston was so much older then; it’s younger than that now.
Back then, Kenmore Square had an element of grime to its pint-sized neon flash, home to sooty landmarks like the Rathskeller, harbinger of halcyon Boston rock like Pixies and Dinosaur Jr.; these days, it smiles a bleached-tooth smile of luxury hotels and Gap outlets, courtesy the gentrified non-vision of Boston University Emperor… er, President Emeritus John Silber. Back then, the tangled extremities of the Central Artery cast neighborhoods in shadow; these days, the bungled Big Dig project has replaced the aboveground concrete monstrosities with visual, if not commuter, unification. Most significantly, Boston is no longer an 86-year-old loser, an urban populace of coulda-beens and underdogs; the Red Sox brought the World Series trophy home, turning the city into an appreciative, yet reluctant, winner, defogging its perpetual defeatist haze.
The Gentlemen don’t fit into this newly beautified version of Boston. The Gentlemen don’t serve its airbrushed, corporate conditioned, family-friendly town. If the city’s tension has been relieved — both symbolically and quite literally — by the events of last October, the Gentlemen still carry that burden of pent-up histories, snarling and temperamental, seemingly unaware of their neighborhood’s reversal of fortune. And loving it.
The Gentlemen are sweat. Pores bottlenecked with stiff-lipped riffs. Underarms oozing rock classicisms. They deliver everything you could ask for from a rock ‘n’ roll band: Jagger struts, cataclysmic guitar rumblings, a wickedly tight rhythm section, and inexhaustible wit. Utilitarian and electric. The Gentlemen pace like a cat in a preoccupied trance, and pounce like one, too, suddenly and apologetically.
Officially, the Gentlemen have been together for roughly five years, a result of the friendship between singer/guitarist Mike Gent (of the Figgs) and the rhythm section of the underappreciated New Haven-via-Boston band the Gravel Pit: drummer Pete Caldes; singer/guitarist Lucky Jackson; and singer/bassist Ed Valauskas (the Pit is currently on an extended hiatus). The four are oft called-upon session and live players, a homespun wrecking crew that has — individually and collectively — backed up Graham Parker, Kay Hanley, Juliana Hatfield, Wheat, and the Candy Butchers. Extra-curricular engagements aside, they’re are at their loosest and most potent as the Gentlemen, cultivating an unabashedly fun romp through no-frills rock ‘n’ roll, a lean and mean, extraordinary machine feasting on an ordinary idiom.
Following two records of raw, juiced-up rock (2000’s Ladies and Gentlemen… and 2003’s Blondes Prefer the Gentlemen), the just-released Brass City Band finds the band branching out in thrilling evolution: horns, keyboards, and a democratic collection of airtight songs from Gent, Jackson, and Valauskas help make it their best album yet. Beyond its kiss-offs and spit-takes, Brass City Band is essentially an amplified celebration of rock’s touchstones: the Gents channel the Stones (the nippy Keef riff of “Flame for Hire”, the X-Pensive Winos sass and burn of “Velvet Rope”) and early Elvis Costello (the scathing indictment in the cowbell-prancing “Hit That” and the trash-talking “A Lot to Say”); dream of a Memphis wedding officiated by “the good Rev. Green” (the power-pop-in-overdrive “Three-Minute Marriage Proposal”); swing some brass-padded funky punches and body blows (“He Had a Mother Tongue” and “100 Stone”); and unleash some relentless ass kickings (the paranoid “Watchdogs” and threatening “Brass City Band”).
The album was a long time coming. After winning top honors at local radio station WBCN’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Rumble in 2002, the Gentlemen took advantage of the prize — free studio time — to record Brass City Band‘s basic tracks. After tracking a rash of overdubs, Valauskas attempted to mix the album himself at home, to adhere to its “no budget theory”. “I had no perspective, not to mention mixing in the box is not nearly as good as going through a Neve,” Valauskas admits via e-mail. The songs were soon turned over to Matt Beaudoin at Boston’s Q Division Studios (where Valauskas works as studio and label manager), who churned out bright, punchy mixes in two days flat. With the record finally ready to go, the Gentlemen found themselves without a label: Q Division Records (who released Ladies and Gentlemen…) passed, and Sodapop Records (releasers of Blondes Prefer the Gentlemen) had closed its doors. The band decided to issue Brass City Band on its own label (the Gentlemen’s Recording Co.) and copies are currently only available online. “The good news,” says Valauskas, “is that we can go at our own pace and not have to share the money with anyone.”
As much as the band values its independence, it’s difficult to understand why a label hasn’t swooped down to promote such a ferociously talented act, especially at a time when straight-up rock ‘n’ roll is once again being embraced by the mainstream. Consider these unexaggerated facts: Brass City Band will be one of the year’s most rousing, addictive rock records, and the Gentlemen are one of Boston’s most notoriously inspiring live acts. Yet despite public endorsements by major figures like Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and ESPN’s Peter Gammons, as well as glowing write-ups in the local papers, the Gentlemen’s influence isn’t felt beyond a few suburbs from the Charles River. Day jobs and a rocky relationship with the all-too-familiar bank account-draining realities of self-promoted touring often keep the band within the confines of New England. To a listener halfway across the country, that’s a bummer: One listen to Brass City Band and you’ll want the band in your living room, now. You’ll have “Silver Boogie” and “Hit That” and “No Need to Leave” cranked so loud, your neighbors will look into a restraining order. You’ll drop to your knees, shouting aloud to your god or your void, asking age-old questions about a capitalist-driven society’s infringement on your favorite band’s ability to drive its van through your town. (But that’s life. So go buy the record and start pining.)
Still, there’s hope for you all. With Brass City Band, the Gentlemen have transcended their own humble origins. They won’t be able to maintain a low-profile stature as local heroes. New Boston can’t contain this kind of raw electricity; it will end up bending and breaking to the Gentlemen’s hyperkinetic will. Jackson, the band’s preeminent writer of stadium-sized rave-ups, composed Brass City Band‘s closing title track, a strenuous warning full of bravado and something resembling courage. “Do yourself a favor and don’t fuck with the Brass City band!” he hollers over the tune’s major-to-minor chord rockslide (with a little help from Superdrag’s John Davis and Sam Powers). Old Boston would be proud. Old Boston would stick its middle finger up in solidarity.