Talkin' bout the Big Time
I’m scheduled to meet the members of RANA at around 7:00 pm but arrive down at The Fillmore area close to 5:30. I don’t get to hang with rock stars everyday. Maybe you do so this might not be such a big deal for you, but to me, a scribbler devoid of cool, it’s a king-size kick in the head. I make sure to not actually arrive at the club too early for fear of looking an even bigger dork than I already am. Fashionably late, I believe that’s the phrase. See it even ties itself into style so it must be a glam idea.
Stopping across the street from the Boom Boom Room to pick up a notebook and paperback I dropped while tripping on my shoelace, I see a gigantic white stretch limo pull up. Lady Marmalade herself steps out of one of the suicide doors and lets out a foghorn wail to her home girl Leelani, who emerges from the Kabuki Hot Springs in a hot pink nylon dress two sizes too small for propriety. Standing up I get a toothy grin from Lady who asks if I want to join her and the voulez-vous posse for a little party. I politely decline. Like Mick said on “Some Girls,” I don’t think I have that much jam. As they pull away I regret not inviting them to the concert. Think everyone might have enjoyed that welcome to San Francisco.
I have no doubt the black van with silver detailing parked directly in front of the place belongs to the band. It’s not even the trailer hitched behind it that gives it away. A rock band would look good in a cruisin’ machine like this and that’s what tells me it’s their ride. This early it’s the usual bar crowd of well-dressed young Asians and the indigenous African-American neighborhooders knocking back a few along with the guys. I spot a tall, white guy with black rim glasses and a striking mass of curly hair. He sports a red jogging suit with raised piping. It’s not a look everyone can do but this guy made it his own. To my pleasant surprise this sartorial savant turns out to be Jake, manager of none other than RANA. We talk as we unload the gear. He introduces me to the guys as they hand me stuff. They look very little like the sidewalk struttin’ young bloods that grace the cover of their debut album, Here In The USA. For some reason I was expecting them to be taller. Think I’ve seen too many movies.
Prior to coming to this meet-and-greet I’d been listening to the CD at least twice a day for a week. It holds up like that. Here In The USA can sit proudly on the same shelf with The Ramones’ End of the Century, Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight and The Smithereens’ Green Thoughts. If I find trouble stacking up RANA’s work with albums of more recent vintage it’s because most rock ‘n’ roll releases these days have the shelf life of fresh cut flowers. Pretty for a few days, then limp in a glass of stagnant water waiting to be thrown out. From Mother Mary on the rock in the opening “Good Book” to the girl “It’s So Hard” to love that closes this tight, constantly engaging nugget, there’s a lot of good juice to be wrung from these songs. It also hangs together as an album, an entity that makes sense in parts but really comes together as a whole. Bits might remind you of the Talking Heads, Ween, Lou Reed or a bit of Big Star. But the songs have a distinctive flavor, something smokey and young and carnal. Thoughtfully libidinous might be another way of putting it.
Standing out front, most of the group smokes cigarettes and predictably looks cool doing it. I ask them about graduating from college, something most of them have just done this year. Matt Durant, keyboards and vocals, informs me he’s got one more semester to go to a music degree. “It’s only a B.A.,” he says. Just then Jake pipes in, “It’s more like a B.S., dude.” Matt tells him to say it again and this time Jake puts a touch of Monty Hall into it. Matt feigns a huge laugh and I join in, putting my hand on my belly for emphasis. Not much is taken seriously by these guys outside of the music itself. When one of them is told that I’m here to write a story about them he says, “Now it’s all gonna happen for us.” The good-natured ribbing puts me at ease.
Photo by D. Cook
Red Bull seems to be the liquid of choice for RANA. Sweet stuff with a kick. Not a bad thumbnail for them actually. When I ask Scott Metzger, guitar and vocals, about playing the Bonnaroo Festival he explained the role Red Bull played there, “We got there like a day and a half before our set. And right away we found the Red Bull and Vodka table. That was it for us.” When told that the energy elixir is served on tap here Scott instantly breaks off and heads inside. It’s his 25th birthday tonight so I hope they spike it good.
Photo by D. Cook
I keep Jake company as he sets up the merchandise area. As he puts up the panties I ask him where they got the idea to produce underwear for their distaff followers. They have three songs, “I Wanna Rock,” “Skin & Bone” and “Ghetto Queen,” that they thought would look good on girls. I can’t argue with his logic. Twice now they’ve sold out of the thong versions. Jake continues, “Figures our fans would be sluts.” His tongue firmly in his cheek as he says this, he pulls out the camouflage t-shirts and lighters with the classically dope group logo on them. When he takes out a stack of CD’s he tells me they spent only $8000 dollars to produce it. I’m taken aback by this. It sounds as sonically clean and rich as anything I’ve heard this year. This sort of information should make young bands rejoice and artists who waste years of studio time slink away on their bellies.
A short while later, the plush red curtain that encircles the Boom Boom’s stage rises. Matt tells me they’re going for a big intro tonight. Even before they’re into the first tune I can see they belong up there. They look happier than the morning sun hammering away on their instruments. A few minutes along I begin to hope that one day they’ll be enough of a touring name to have flash-pots and go-go dancers, something in the KISS Alive! vein. Before they’d begun, Andrew Southern, bass and vocals and possessor of one ace rocker name, had told me that he has a guitar with a metal pipe behind the neck. He can load it with a single shot of pyrotechnics powder to use when they need a big finish (I see there’s balance in RANA’s scheme of rockin’...). I can’t decide if he’s fucking with me or not but I want to believe him.
Photo by D. Cook
They all make terrific Rock Faces. I don’t think they’re even aware of it. There’s none of the premeditation that mars nearly every Blink-ing band on MTV. My poseur detector is always active and RANA feels on the money to me. They contort in response to their instruments or something one of the others sings. A back-up vocal means something to them. An effective stop-start flourish can set them jumping. None of the ironic posturing of 21st century pop rock, all of the fist pumping, sweat soaked abandon of early CBGB's.
Ryan Thornton, drummer and occasional vocalist, captivates me all night. Bands kill to get a guy like this behind the kit. The skin rattling rightness of Marky Ramone and Jay Dee Daugherty (Patti Smith Group) thrives in this young one. He’s dead powerful and makes the others dig in deeper every time they lock eyes with him. They all take time to check in with each other during the show. No words are exchanged but a look that says “I’m feelin’ it, are you feelin’ it, man?” My head bobs violently and I wish I still had hair down to my waist, just for this one show, just for tonight.
Photo by D. Cook
After the set, outside again for a smoke, Scott gives the show a B-minus on the RANA scale. I resist asking him to explain how a rollicking, honest display like the one I just witnessed is only in the B range, then what warrants an A.
I invite the whole gang to my tiny apartment the next day to eat dinner before their gig in Berkeley. Figure anyone this far from home deserves a decent meal and besides more hang time with this group already seems like a good idea to me. They are charming; whip smart and a darn good time. In fact they are very little like the rock stars my brain had formulated before actually meeting them.
Jake jokes about waking up on Sunday morning in a strange woman’s bedroom. A few of the other guys laugh and hoot in boisterous agreement. Part of me thinks Jake has a wild streak that could find him in such a bedroom with two nubiles and a helper monkey, and he’d still complain about the missing goat. I think men like him were made to manage tours for bands like RANA. I almost say out loud that the idea of them hooking up with some quality Frisco honey isn’t too far fetched. After all, they are with the band and that counts for a lot in this world.
Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town
As I watch the horseplay unfold on my couch, it’s easy to believe that Matt, Ryan and Andrew have known each other since grade school. Scott joins in like the sibling that he is. What they share is a bond most families would envy. As Scott and Ryan slap at each other, Andrew tells me about meeting Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth (Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads) at a listening party. His eyes grow wide as he says, “Tina is the greatest, hot female bassist of well, ever.” I like to see musicians can still be fans, too.
Earlier that day while cooking, I listened to a RANA show from the 7 Fiddlers Music Festival back in August. The minute the show ended I immediately started it again. One sequence has them sliding from a great rendition of a great song off Here in the USA, “My One Dear Son,” into the Waterboys’ “We Will Not Be Lovers.” Truth be told, I’m not much of a fan of Mike Scott or his Waterboys but when this Scott belts out the words, making his guitar scream along, I understand why he picked this one for his very own. I can tell by sundown that I’m in the first stages of full-blown fandom. Mr. Webster’s wonderful book defines a fan as an ardent admirer or enthusiast. It’s good that there’s a connection to d’amour with that ‘ardent’ part. Having a band’s music capture you is a bit like falling in that other thing. It’s giddy at first and then softens into something richer if given enough time and care.
Photo by Danny Owen
I tell them how jealous I am of the New Yorkers who will get to see them play CBGB's on New Year’s Eve. Andrews tells me he thinks about it every day. They are headlining and they all feel that means something though nobody jumps forward to explain just what. I call it a portent of a very bright 2003 for RANA but keep that to myself. I’ve already been teased several times for my word use. Again, that not being cool thing rears its ugly head.
Later, in the dungeon space that is Blakes, it’s hard for me to believe the relaxed goofing of earlier has led to a dynamite night of rocking. After dinner they had the lazy sleepiness of puppies and I wondered if they’d be up to playing. Once they start all clowning is forgotten. As Vin Diesel put it in one of the most oft quoted lines of the year, they live for this shit. Occasionally a tattooed beefcake will hit the nail on the head and who am I to resist?
Photo by D. Cook
They open with the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.” It doesn’t ape the original but it does have the raised skirt, leather boot sauciness of the cover painting on the Velvet’s 1969 Live. Raw and hard and fast, like copping a feel in the front seat of your parents’ car on a school night. Quality illicit thrills are fewer and fewer as one becomes more jaded. I’ll take my kicks where I can, thank you very much. They rush ahead into “I’m Coming Correct” which Scott introduces as the philosophy that gets them out of bed in the morning.
They are restoring my faith in traditional rock and roll by the minute. I think about doing something nice for them next time they hit town, maybe a late night visit to the Mitchell Brothers strip club. I know they’d be nice to the girls and tip when they sit by the rail. Plus I could finally say those seven magic words that many of us secretly dream of speaking to a beautiful woman twirling around a brass pole, “Why yes, I am with the band.”
Before “I Wanna Rock” we’re told Andrew will be doing a bass solo where we’ll get to see his “O” face. The Office Space reference is not lost on the Berkeley crowd and a select few snicker. And when he lets that bottom-end monster roar it’s awesome, the kind of solo Gene Simmons used to rip before they added Inc. to the end of his group’s name.
Photo by Danny Owen
At the end of the show I make sure to shake everyone’s hand and gush inarticulate compliments. I forget all about asking about the origins of their logo or the dozen other questions scrawled on a notepad in my bag. That’s the way it is with really good music. It centers us in the moment and makes us go happily blank in the best of ways. RANA is the real deal. No lying, kids. It doesn’t take long to figure that out but it won’t hurt to let the rest of you in on it now.
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