MERMEN & NEXT TRIBE | 06.25 | NYC

Mercury Lounge was the vehicle for plenty of travel last night - the music was the passport and Next Tribe and the Mermen were the tour guides.

After the end of the loud, grungy sounds of the Big Wreck's opening set came to a halt, Next Tribe took to the stage. I have seen these guys a handful of times and have waxed hyperbolic about them a bit - so I'll (try to) keep my comments short. Last night, they were as tight as I've ever seen them. Their songs seemed to have a focus that sometimes was missing at times in the past. The set began with isolated tunes that have been the heart of all the Next Tribe shows I have seen. Structured like simple funk instrumentals in one way, and elaborate fugues in another - the compositions are like crystal lattices. A simplistic regular array of points, where each point is a complex musical piece.

These songs are unlike anything I have heard in my travels as a livemusicologist. Next Tribe's internationally flavored mix is an utter refreshment in the world of rehashed musical genre-mixing. It is rare that a band can create and then inhabit it's own niche in the spectrum of live music. Next Tribe pulls this off - it isn't easy, but they do it.

Last night, Rob's guitar work fluttered between beauty and viciousness, sweet and bitter. His notes seemed to isolate the other band members individually, guiding the listeners ears to pick out nuances in the sonic landscape. With two percussionists anchoring each side the rhythms remained consistent and allowed the unique sounds of the flamenco guitar to evoke imagery of distant lands while the strings vibrated before our eyes in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

As the set worked its way on and the band found its groove, they launched into a grinding medley of what must have been 4 or 5 songs. Each of these tied together through sometimes smooth, sometimes stuttering segues. Phil on the drums zoned in on Rob's cues as they meandered through at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted exploration. These echoing riffs, fueled heavily by the fat bass lines, traversed the globe, from sitar tinged Indian to dark toned Middle Eastern and lively flamenco-ed Spanish.

The set was, as they say, short and sweet - not even reaching an hour in their Mercury Lounge debut. The magic carpet landed back in New York City - but only for a short while. Next up was the Mermen who quickly whisked the audience away to the sunny sands of California.

I had only heard a bit of this band, but I had heard enough and enough about them to know to stick around and check them out...

I am a product of the mid-Atlantic/New England world of the northeast having traveled very little to and spent very little time in California. Thus my view of that corner of this country is formed mostly through stereotype, movies and television. By that basis, the Mermen were 100% California - all of those stereotypes thrown in a blender like so many fruits in a low-fat, nutritious fruit smoothie.

The musicians themselves - the guitarist has this stocky, Venice Beach body-builder look to him; the bassist is a beach-blonde Valley Girl crossed Tina-Weymouth-bad-girl-rock-star; the drummer, the near-legendary Prairie Prince playing with them last night, sat behind the kit looking like a surfer with a print shirt and too-dark, too-cool sunglasses taboot.

The music was a melange of beachcomber surfer rock, San Francisco psychedelica and L.A.'s The Doors' melancholy and intensity. For the first half of the set, the songs, all instrumental, were relaxing odes on the surfer guitar themes. Each was 5 minutes long, tops, and each seemed to resemble the first. That isn't to say they were bad, it just was a bit boring. Boring in the way that 80 degrees and sunny 365 days a year is boring. Boring in the way that staring at the ocean move in and out for hours is boring. Like waves in the water, the energy ebbed back and forth, but the music, like the water, stayed in one place. I guess, in this context, boring can be good or bad, depending on your mood.

As the set progressed, the music diverged slightly, but in contrast to the previous set by Next Tribe, the songwriting was lackluster. About 40 minutes in though, the band really hit their stride and with the help of the energetically, cult-like crowd that hooted for songs and cheered emphatically (although did little moving besides that) the room finally snapped out of the lull. One tune had a marked edge to it which culled the raucous hint of klezmer that's always been, in my eyes, the subtext of much surf music. Another pair were quite beautiful, simple melodies where guitar, bass and drums merged perfectly and the audience was taken for a cruise down Rte.1 with a view of the Pacific right over the cliffside.

Don't have the names of the other band members handy (crappy web access), but the band is configured like a typical power trio. Like a Jimi Hendrix Experience for surfers, the guitarist and his Fender were the focal point. His style was metallic surf music with a twist of the surreal. Doused heavily in reverb and primitive guitar effects, each note plucked sounded like multiple ones - hanging in the air even after the next not was played. The bassist was well-matched, filling the low end with wide, meaty lines - consistent and simple with rarely found fills. Prairie Prince on the drums seemed a bit out of synch at times - probably due to the fact that he is not a full-time member of the band (at least, I don't think he is). Like the rest of the music he was supporting, the rhythms were simple and true and a perfect fit with the overall sound. Sometimes pounding like crashing waves and sometimes whispering like a breeze flavored with salt water, once he got comfortable in the groove, Prince was a presence behind the skins.

A ways into their set, they called up a guest substitute on drums - a man who's name I completely missed. They opened up that portion of the show with the first cover of the night (that I knew, at least) - a rendition of Ennio Morricone's theme to "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly." That tune always had a surf-guitar sound inherent to it, and in this choppy, rollicking version, really fit well into the flow of the set. Following with a couple tunes of the guest drummer's work, they played a song called "The Bumblebee" - which was basically a reworked version of "Flight of the Bumblebee." Dexterity and power were evident as the band manipulated that finger-twisting tune to perfection.

While I don't think I can echo some of the superlative words I had previously heard about Mermen, or match the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans, I very much enjoyed their set and the brief respite from the business of New York. Unfortunately it was a Monday night, and a Monday night to head off one of the busier weeks of music in NYC this year. So, we dusted the sand off our shorts and left the beach - back to the warmth of the NYC summer evening and the reality of the train ride home to Brooklyn.

Aaron Stein
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 6/26/01]

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