Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Dave Vann
Eric McFadden Trio/The New Up :: 03.14.09 :: Starry Plough :: Berkeley, CA
These are revolutionary times – if you want them to be. The old ways of doing things are sliding away, and while the shape of what's ahead remains hazy there's lots of promising lines and curves coming into focus. Music is in as much flux as politics, commerce, social relationships, national identities, etc., which makes it fraught with danger and promise. This notion about music's current mad fluidity within the larger framework o' things hit me as The New Up and Eric McFadden Trio burned and twisted next to a quote from Irish socialist icon James Connolly painted large on the wall of The Starry Plough that begins, "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetic expression," and ends with, "It is the dogma of the few and the faith of the multitude." Faith and dogma – big ideas – but these bands and looming concepts coalesced into marching anthems for today.
For some of us, and surely these two bands, rock 'n' roll is more church than anything the Catholics, Hindus, et al. have to offer. There is voodoo of equal strength inside amplified guitars and pummeling drums, shouted heart cries and black inked whispers, as well as an equal mixture of mysticism and pragmatism inherent in all religions. And while I mused philosophically during my New Up head-banging (this S.F. band is getting so wonderfully heavy these days...), I found myself seized, literally, in the surprisingly strong grip of Eric McFadden, who lifted my heels a few centimeters and screamed in my face, "ROCK-AND-ROLL, motherfucker!" He'd just wandered in from the temperate early spring night smelling earthy and cool, and he'd reached out for confirmation and connection after being hit in the spirit by what was transpiring onstage. See, that's why rock is a more appealing church; it's physical and doesn't deny all the "below the waist" stuff or ugly urges to elbow things or refuse a stiff drink when passed its way. There is the joy of the living in this church, and the congregation was stirred mightily by this pairing of artists that understands the value of the hard AND the soft in rock, and how it can be used as a sharp tool for prying out truth, honesty, sadness, madness and sublime sweetness. There is SUCH a sense of engagement from EMT and TNU that one feels compelled to get more than knee deep in it with 'em. And as the evening progressed that's just what happened at the Plough, a decades old watering hole for iconoclasts and shit-stirrers like these bands.
The New Up is ES Pitcher (vocals, guitar), Noah Reid (guitar, vocals) Hawk West (flute, electronics), Dain Dizazzo (bass) and drummer Drew Bertrand, who made his live debut at this show and brought a welcome "When The Levee Breaks" Bonham-esque heaviness and barely contained enthusiasm to the proceedings. Over the past few years, the Up has evolved from a jam band with '80s inklings into one of those chrome-plated, punk-steam fueled, modern creatures that defy categorization, except to say that they've poured the archetypal waters of Patti Smith, Radiohead, Talking Heads and other giants into their boiler, emerging on the tracks strong and sleek and ready to tussle in the 21st century's new frontiers. Standing up front during their set, I reveled in the tactile force of their music; you feel this in your legs and belly and then sometime later, as you're humming a line caught in your brain, you realize how fucking smart and perceptive they are. I'm always impressed when someone can make me smile and then make me think, and The New Up do this repeatedly, including the new material they played, which will likely see the light of day on the new EP they are heading into the studio to record in April. Vibrant, constantly evolving, downright sexy live performers, The New Up also has solid foundations, playing carefully massaged material with skill and flair. They're pretty much rock's best traits given a crackled candy apple paint job, shiny rims and some plush leather (that they'll surely stain in one of their misadventures... and then write a great tune about).
|ES Pitcher & Noah Reid - The New Up - 03.14.09|
A lot of the same holds true for the McFadden Trio, but mix in healthy scoops of Piazzolla tango, dustbowl blues, '30s hot jazz and a fat ladle of '60s S.F. psychedelic goulash. For three guys they make a hellacious roar, marrying top shelf songcraft with something more bloody fingered – punk or early funk before it became domesticated, or perhaps the blues as practiced by switchblade wielders and grifters with a gift. McFadden himself, fiercely abused guitar in hand, is folklore in motion. From the waist up he looked like a Deadwood gunslinger, while his pants were surely shanghaied from a pirate. He exudes strength and mystery, shadows falling from his words as his fingers tie intricate knots. I love watching his hands move, the way they seem possessed of a life of their own, a feeling echoed in the surprise on his face when he nails something particularly stirring. McFadden, particularly on a blazingly "on" night like this one, strikes one as the guy you'd need to negotiate with at the crossroads. Oh, he's not the Devil but he knows a guy who knows a guy who knows him, and if you want that golden fiddle you'll speak to Mr. McFadden first. If Stephen King ever decides to revive his Dark Tower series, he's got a hell of a protagonist waiting right here.
The trio is filled out by long-time partner James Whiton (double bass) and drummer Doug Port, and together the three move like a spirit wind. Though we stood inside a neighborhood pub in navy blue Berkeley, they found ways of crawling under our skin, like a ghost in the night flicking our ears or shaking the plaster off the walls. You can see so much of this music in Whiton's noodling body and animated face, feel it in the antique haunting of his bowed bass, which shook and sometimes wept with the sadness of widows' dreams or childhood frights. When it was his fingers engaging the strings directly he produced a Titanic rumble. Whiton is as much up front much of the time as McFadden's brilliant guitar work, and the clash of their streams makes for exciting listening/viewing. Port is no slouch either; bringing authority and a unifying bang to the swirling ingredients around him. It's not every percussionist that can tap out a Tom Waits-ian pots & pans thing, then instantly switch to surf rock and swing back around to sophisticated, cymbal rich jazz, yet Port made it look easy. The good ones always do.
|Eric McFadden Trio - 03.14.09|
In the Plough's tight quarters, the audience increasingly riled as the show progressed, I found myself struck mightily by the big soul inside Eric McFadden. His singing and playing are as good as it gets, full of power and awe inspiring expertise, but better still is his ability to etch large ideas and small with such painterly skill. One feels very much situated in wherever he has taken you, sometimes places without sun populated by silent birds and at others, places of moist heat, groping connection, wine breathed kissin' closeness. Watching him flake the lacquer off his trusty instrument, voice in full wail, I caught a flash of Jimi Hendrix. Not the flashy, guitar burning extrovert but the cat that holed up and wrote "Castles Made of Sand," ""1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)," "3rd Stone From The Sun" and "Little Wing." There are more than a few markings of true greatness in Eric McFadden, and frankly I think we're mighty lucky to get to watch him evolve in small clubs. If his lightning ever catches the attention of the pop culture gods I have no doubt he'd be right at home atop Mt. Olympus.
So, the revolution is on – within these fine bands and out in the world at large – and we've got our "poetic expression" courtesy of forward moving, boundary pushing musicians like this bunch. Pick up the flag or don't. The choice is ours, and we make it everyday, just sometimes we find ourselves blessed enough to shout about it over pints with sweaty, none-too-careful mammals like those gathered together at the Plough.
Eric McFadden Trio tour dates available here.
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