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A Night in the Life of the Mercury Lounge Drum Set

August 24th, 2012

Yellowbirds/Gabriel & the Hounds/Shovels & Rope/Christopher Paul Stelling – Mercury Lounge – August 23, 2012

Yellowbirds

It was a full night of music at Mercury Lounge last night with four different bands playing in completely different styles and arrangements. Just think about how the Merc’s house drum set felt getting used and abused like that. Brooklyn’s Christopher Paul Stelling was up first. And as one guy with a guitar, he didn’t use the drums at all. Instead, his wildly rhythmic fingerpicking and tambourine-enhanced foot stomping provided all the percussion he needed. His set was summed up with the lyric “Come close … but beware,” as he went into a trance with each song, seemingly pulling his heartfelt music from another self buried deep inside. Most of the material came from his excellent Songs of Praise and Scorn (which he joked hasn’t gotten all the “praise” yet), plus a new one, “Every Last Extremist,” which spun a little politics into his dense lyrics and scintillating guitar playing.

The early-show headliner, Shovels & Rope—a Charleston, S.C., duo consisting of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst—played stripped-down, old school country music. Here, the drum kit was bastardized into just its snare and kick drum at the front of the stage, with the crash cymbal just within reach so Trent and Hearst (who took turns sitting in on drums) could hit it for effect. Opening with “Gasoline,” the music was a ragged, DIY sound mixing Dolly Parton-esque vocals with classic country songwriting and the denim-shirt demeanor to match. The set alternated between raucous foot-stompers about whiskey and travels and, in “The Winner,” the underdog and sweeter, more heartfelt material with lines about “hanging my heart on your barbed-wire fence.” The sold-out crowd ate up every bit. After a good chunk of their newly released O’ Be Joyful album, a cover of “Hail Hail Rock ’n’ Roll,” plenty of what Hearst called “chitty chatty” and a fair share of off-kilter banging on that old drum kit, they were still going strong.

Following an intermission (and a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s), the Ernie Banks “Let’s play two!” late set started with Gabriel & the Hounds. The stage now looked like someone had shaken up a Boggle set and the band was left to make words with the way things had fallen. Namesake Gabriel Levine was up front with guitar in hand—the way a bandleader should be—the bass player was tucked in the back corner, nearly hidden in shadows, and then there were two drummers sharing that single house kit, one guy with the snare and tom and the other guy with the bass drum and high hat, as well as a keyboard. It was a unique arrangement and the split drums fed the sound, a low-key, smoldering pop punctuated by Levine’s caramel crooning. By let everyone know it had been a “weird day,” but mostly let the music speak for him, with occasional outbursts of guitar and layered melody that required a little attention and patience from the audience but built as the set went on.

Last but not least, Yellowbirds finished the night with the drum kit finally back together, played by one guy backing a band that is in its gets-better-every-time phase. What once seemed like just Sam Cohen’s solo album, the superlative The Color, from last year, now has a full-fledged, road-tested band to match. The old stuff took on new heights, tighter arrangements and plenty of guitar-fueled excursions. But new material, characterized by organs and groovier bass, was just as good. The set was a strong offering of Cohen’s vintage sound; reverb, whammy bars and deft playing came in waves like a living, breathing Wes Anderson soundtrack. Songs like “The Rest of My Life” and “The Honest Ocean” transported the late-night crowd, and all the while the drums kept on beating. Just another night at Mercury Lounge. —A. Stein