Last night was one of those nights I really wanted to stay home. I took a mid-evening nap and woke sweaty and groggy about 8:15 PM. Only one thing would’ve made me choose to get up rather than flip the pillow over to find the cool side and return to slumberland: a show at my favorite venue (the Beachland Tavern) featuring the man responsible for the best album I’ve heard this year (Brent Knopf).
So, I got up, got dressed, walked the dog, and headed to Waterloo Road, though not without a few muttered curses.
I should’ve known all along that making the tired drive over was the smartest thing I could’ve done. I had a great time, both seeing Ramona Falls perform and catching up with friends at Low Life Gallery’s latest spectacular opening.
I rolled in to the tavern just in time to hear the last 3-4 songs from The Modern Electric’s set. Unfortunately, I missed hearing either of my favorite two tracks from their recent wonderful self-titled debut, “David Bowie (Save Us All)” and “The Anti-Sing Along.” What I did get to hear was grand, though. I missed the middle band, Other Girls, in order to catch the exhibit opening down the block, which is disappointing considering how much I like tracks like “Gem City” and “Last Day” from their own recent album, Perfect Cities.
In a different way, though, it was well worth it. I’ve considered the Waterloo Road stretch of Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood home for quite some time now, even though my address won’t officially reflect that feeling until week after next, and while I was chatting with some friends and very soon to be neighbors, Brent Knopf walked over from the Beachland to check out the exhibit himself. I’d told him about it only several minutes before and when he walked up, it gave me an opportunity to see my neighborhood through his eyes. I introduced him to the fellow residents, folks that do graphics for rock clubs, shoot photos for NASA, and sit at the helm at the local NPR affiliate and best indie bookstore in the city, and was able to point out my favorite spots on the block, the Slovenian sausage store, the vintage toy shop, the record store with the custom designed album cover floor, the old man bar down the block and the mega-gallery building across the street. I’m sure I came off like an obnoxious Waterloo Welcome Wagon, but it was gratifying to hear Knopf give a shout out to the neighborhood and how much cool stuff was going on a short time later as he greeted the Beachland audience.
The show itself was wonderful (as if it could have ever been anything but, given the brilliance of the recent Intuit album). The performance wasn’t terribly long and there weren’t any set-list surprises (they played every one of the 11 tracks on Intuit, in different order from how they appear on the record, and nothing else), but there was something so relaxed yet energetic in how they played and interacted with one another.
At one point during the show, temporarily lost in the music (I think it might’ve been during “Salt Sack”), I decided that Knopf is the Barack Obama of indie rock. One of the things I love about our president is how smart he is, how when he speaks you see the wheels turning inside and turning in ways and at speeds that most of us couldn’t ever compare with. Knopf is the same way. When he’s performing, he’s fully into it, but you can see his mind working as the expressions on his face change, following the beat of something happening in his brain. Unlike Obama, his gears are turning to music, not wonky policy details, though Knopf has a penchant for the sciences, too. You should’ve seen his eyes light up when I introduced my friend who worked at NASA! (Check out a recent Q&A I did with him here for more evidence of this.)
The show began with my favorite track on Intuit, “Diamond Shovel,” with Knopf appearing solo on stage, strapped into a beautiful all black guitar. I’d meant to ask him the details on this piece of equipment but forgot. My bad. Sorry. After the song ended and his shout out to Cleveland and the block that surrounded the Beachland, the rest of the band joined him onstage.
Knopf has assembled a fearsome trio of musicians to accompany him on this tour, including his Menomena bandmate Danny Seim on bass, guitarist Matt Sheehy, and drummer Paul Alcott. The chops on each one of these guys are first rate, but Alcott particularly made an impression on me. A tremendous percussionist, he made his presence felt right off the bat with the first full-band song of the set, “Russia,” and continued to impress throughout, as much by his instrumental skills as his frenetic Sideshow Bob appearance and ADHD-esque inability to sit down for more than a minute or two at a time. Alcott also seems to be the funnyman of the group (though Seim might be a rival for this designation), publicly apologizing after “Russia” for dropping his stick, saying “Sorry about dropping a stick. I’m not gonna do that again. That was a one time thing.” All three sentences were enunciated in such an earnest and strange way, I couldn’t repeat them aloud as he originally delivered them to save my life.
Following Alcott’s apology, the band dove right in to a rollicking version of “I Say Fever.” For a gentle soul, Brent Knopf can fucking rock, and this song demonstrated that perfectly. Knopf forgot some of the lyrics at first and stood silently for a few lines while the band plugged ahead. He joined them a moment or so later and the rest of the song went off without a hitch.
I originally wasn’t going to draw attention to the lyrical ball-dropping – everyone makes mistakes – but Knopf decided to do so himself, explaining after the song ended that he had a theory about what had just happened. Specifically, it was something a lot like in the film Back to the Future, where people gradually start to disappear as the history that preceded their existence changed. Knopf linked the filmic reference to the forgotten lyrics by noting that the original feelings that had motivated the writing of “I Say Fever” had faded over the years, and that perhaps his memory of the lyrics was also fading, much like the characters in the film. As he started to further elaborate, trying to bring together the two otherwise disparate phenomena, Seim uttered into the microphone behind Knopf, “Get back in the DeLorean dude. Let’s do this. Knopf stopped his effort to reconcile the references immediately, and the band launched in to “The Darkest Day.”
After that song and a delightful version of “Bellyfulla,” Knopf performed the brief instrumental interlude from the album (“Boy Ant”), and Seim again stepped to the mic, noting that this song was written for “the girls that didn’t break Brent’s heart … that’s why there aren’t any lyrics.”
A chuckle later and the group was banging out “Going Once, Going Twice,” after which guitarist Sheehy announced he wasn’t going to be using his drink tickets and laid them upon the amp case in front of him for anyone who wanted them to pick up. I don’t remember that anyone ever took him up on the offer, perhaps because of some ill-placed Rust Belt alienation resulting from Sheehy’s Schlitz Beer dialogue. Sheehy paid for the shtick momentarily, though, as the band started “Salt Sack” and it took him a few moments and Alcott’s frantic waving across the stage before he realized his guitar wasn’t plugged in. (Either he’d switched without re-plugging or it had come detached as he leaned forward to lay down the drink tix.)
He got things back in order and the band finished the tune up, going in to “Always Right,” the point in the evening where Knopf seemed most into his vocals. I’d love to ask him the back story of that song some day and see if it matches the intensity of his effort on the song’s performance. Knopf seems like a dude that exudes sincerity, and my hunch is that he was thinking about whatever it was the motivated the song’s creation in the first place.
Afterwards, before announcing that the band had two songs left to play, he acknowledged that the slight polka tinge the audience might’ve heard in “Always Right” was indeed strategic, an effort they’d made to siphon off some of the energy in the venue’s other room, where a Detroit and Toledo based polka troupe was playing its own homage to Pink Floyd, titled appropriately Polka Floyd.
The band then played its final two songs, my two other favorite tracks off Intuit, “Clover” (which ended with a wonderful overlapping vocals effect) and “Melectric.” I said a quick goodbye to the folks in the room I knew, shook Knopf’s hand and congratulated him on a show well performed as he made his way over to the merch table, and hit the road, smiling from the show as well as in anticipation of the cool side of the pillow that now awaited me.
Ramona Falls at Beachland Tavern, 9/12/09:
1) Diamond Shovel
3) I Say Fever
4) The Darkest Day
6) Boy Ant
7) Going Once, Going Twice
8) Salt Sack
9) Always Right