By: Dennis Cook
These United States :: 10.19.08 :: Crepe Place :: Santa Cruz, CA
It's gonna take a lot to redeem the United States in the eyes of the world, and not a few of its own citizens as well. Torture, abject greed, scandal upon scandal, a profound lack of compassion and, more simply, a general failure to govern of late has tarnished the current administration and its allies in the eyes of most reasonable, decent human beings. You know, the ones that don't treat wars like a game of Risk, the ones that don't wallow in cronyism and political gamesmanship that make "Chicago politics" seem like a demure tea party, the ones that don't sell out their children's future for short term gains and personal enrichment. One small but powerful step in this redemption march is These United States, a D.C./Knoxville band that renews the better angels inside their name, refocusing our attentions on love, liberty and varied pursuits of happiness, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming troubles.
|Jesse Elliott - These United States|
Playing indoors at the Crepe Place, there was more than a lil' hootenanny vibe to this Sunday night, the salt clean air and distant rush of waves outside providing a calming atmosphere, the agitation of economic meltdown and Democratic-Republican bitch slapping fading as happily scruffy young men picked up guitars and offered up songs of quiet renewal and delightfully irresponsible rebellion. Performing below a painting of '66 Dylan, all smiles beneath his Ray-Bans and unkempt Jewfro, the musicians centered us in the room, drawing us close with tales true and tall, the between song banter a curled finger that invited us to step past our fences and be here now. It seems so simple – a few instruments, some decent songcraft, real emotion and a spot of skill in delivering the whole shebang – but like a great grilled cheese sandwich, an afternoon baseball game under blue stadium skies or an icy microbrew on a hot day, sometimes getting the basics right, offering them sincerely and to the best of one's ability, is everything. TUS and opener Vandaveer (the other preoccupation of TUS bassist Mark Charles) crossed the T's and dotted the I's with fortifying dexterity in Santa Cruz, a pair of poignant reminders that it's so much easier to move forward when we've got the right marching tunes.
When you dream
Is it physical?
Does it make a spark?
Does it leave a mark?
There's many, many lines that stick and resonate in Vandaveer's music. Delivered in a voice that seeps into one's pores like a hot spring, Charles' songs have a quiet command but you can still pick up on the jukebox potential hiding inside his intentionally soft musings. Announcing, "I always sing before I speak," Charles dueted with his sister Rose, drawing out new ones, selections from Vandaveer's debut, Grace & Speed, and inspired, frozen moment inspiring covers of The Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love" and a shivery Rose-sung "La Paloma," which eked out all the lingering space and direct poetry of the 140 year old tune. Outside after their set, eavesdropping on the smokers out front, I heard one backwoods lookin' hipster remark, "That was so...damn sweet. I haven't been this moved since like Paul Simon." While perhaps a bit of an overreach, it does speak to the level of talent brewing here. Oh, the same hirsute wag later said TUS sounded like what you'd get if "Wilco and Bonnie "Prince" Billy had a baby." Again, vaguely accurate but it's not a stretch to put these musicians in some fairly high-powered company.
Each number, for both bands, was juiced from the floor up by jaw droppin' percussionist Robby Cosenza. With Vandaveer, he offered hesitant pacing and the octopus limbed addition of hand bells, shakers and maracas, whcih joined the tiny, shitty Craigslist purchased trap kit that Cosenza nonetheless made rumble and whisper with great impact all night. With TUS, he made the floor tom wobble along with hard snare edge cracks or handled the brushes like small birds, lightly held and tender as all get out. As TUS guitarist-pedal steel player Tom Hnatow pointed out during the opening set, "No matter who he plays with, Robby ends up being the heart of the band." I have no problem believing that after what I witnessed in Santa Cruz and earlier in the week at the more raucous show in S.F. (see JamBase's review of the Barack n' Roll benefit concert here).
Sometimes when the journeymen would drop by, unannounced
To crash upon the hallway floor, get drunk and make sad sounds
They'd swear – upon their mothers' graves! – the next time they'd pay rent
And there's that certain something, that certain something amongst thieves
You may be now wondering what my part in all this mess is
You prefer your puzzle pieces together/ I think that's precious
But I may never tell, oh well/ You may never know
See, I do not get dealt all the cards, but I sense which ones to show
These United States are full of "that certain something" – a highway honed savoir faire that rollicks like hungry dogs nursed on The Band, American romanticism and the detritus of various "gates" (Water, Iran-Contra, Trooper). Where S.F. on Wednesday found them barking loudly, the Crepe Place proved cozier, twangier and more informal. The copacetic mood fit them like a vintage suede jacket, the stray bits of Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie in their sound coming to the fore, scooped up by loose dancers and attentive thinkers who both clapped hands when the moment cried out for it.
TUS throw a lot at you but do so in such a tuneful way that you let 'em get all over you, even reaching out your open hand to receive more or let them whisk you off to hell and yonder. Again, like the previous Wednesday, my bobbing head and flushed skin reminded me why I love rock 'n' roll so so so much AND that despite the cranks that say all the good times are gone, all the greats withered or buried, well, there's still plenty of fresh blood being spilled on floorboards every night. These United States played like this music can save their souls, and if they do it right, might help elevate us, too. Bandleader-songwriter-bon vivant Jesse Elliott, strumming his acoustic guitar with finger tenderizing passion, let slip, "I'm gonna change the world/ if it don't change me!" It's a thesis statement behind TUS, a purposeful, defiant drive that will fuel them through the weathering years of making a name for themselves and playing claptrap dives for gas money.
Surrounded by the vintage Americana adorning the Crepe Place's walls – yellowing movie posters from the '40s, drawings of pugilists from the 1800s – These United States seemed a fine fit, another piece of American ingenuity that entertains and enriches our days. Though they'd played almost the exact same set as the Barack benefit, it felt much different, which points to the diversity built into their catalog and their range as players. Red, white n' blue chameleons, they keep their shape but adapt their colors to fit their circumstances. With almost no chatter to overcome, they could just lay their sweet sounds out for anyone willing to listen and drop a penny in their cup.
Within them roams Guthrie's evangelical populism, Hank Williams' humor, Jerry Garcia's country shadows and more. And the rare two-song encore offered up two more glimpses of their inner landscape, namely Dylan (a jumpin', sloppy romp through "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" the other three prodded Elliott into reviving) and Chuck Berry ("You Never Can Tell," offered without even knowing Chuck's 82nd birthday was the previous day – see JamBase's little Berry salute here). By the final bow, I was convinced this band is enjoyable AND deep enough to lure ol' Ralph Waldo and Henry David from their earthly slumbers to join in their roughhewn jubilee. Keep it up, lads. Your country needs you now more than ever.
Take a listen to TUS doing "Get Yourself Home" from a live-in-the-studio session from July:
And here's a little "Woolgathering" with Vandaveer from the same session:
These United States' next gig is on 11/05 in Chicago. Tour dates available here.
For more on These United States, check our feature here.
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