(July 18,2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)
I know that none of you could ever conceive of this, but… yours truly has, upon occasion, been known as the perpetrator of some fairly boneheaded moves. Perhaps one of the biggest involves the band Bunnygrunt. You see, over my twenty-plus years in this business, I have never seen (or really even heard) one of Saint Louis’ most-beloved musical acts. Why, you ask? As odd as it sounds… I didn’t particularly care for the name; yup… that’s it! I simply did not think Bunnygrunt was a name befitting a rock ‘n’ roll ensemble. After Saturday’s show at Off Broadway (my first “grunting”), I come to you, knees bent and head bowed in an abject act of contrition for being such a name-hating idjit.
The evening’s affair actually encompasses two separate and very distinct shows: Bunnygrunt and Royal Holland were originally scheduled with another act at the venue but, when the third act had to cancel, the ‘Grunt’s Matt Harnish asked a couple of punk bands, who had a house show scheduled, if they would like to join forces for the Off Broadway show. It certainly looks odd on paper but, it makes a certain amount of sense, as Ashley Hohman, from the Saint Louis group Veil, had already been penciled in as Bunnygrunt’s bassist-for-the-night.
The music of Veil is old school, a cool blend of the Damned and early Misfits. The reverb and echo sometimes got in the way of Ashley’s vocals and, somehow, managed to seep into every aspect of the performance. I mean, seriously… how do you manage to get reverb on a drum kit? Ashley’s bass and Gabe’s primal skin-beating fueled the group through a set that was, though technically short (about 20 minutes), filled to the brim with punk goodness. With Chris and Leo’s grinding, slashing guitar attack, the quartet played their latest six-song demo, MANIAC, in it’s entirety and tossed in a killer version of Patti Smith’s classic anthem, “Because the Night,” for good measure. Aside from the reverb overkill, Veil’s set was fun… a great way to kick off the night.
Royal Holland is a scruffy-looking, soft-spoken, unassuming sort of guy; the kind of guy you may not even give a second look, except for his piercing eyes and friendly smile. If you’ve given a listen to his music (a pair of EPs), his voice is a lilting, calming thing; the tunes range from folky solo outings to ethereal doses of poppy Americana. However, once he took the stage, the soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor was gone, replaced by a confident, snarling singer and raging guitarist; the music took on a tougher patina, pushing the songs’ boundaries into a harder rocking vein. And, yeah… he did it mostly with an acoustic guitar, a notable exception being the freak-out/rave-up of set closer, “Flamingo,” from the recently released VOLUME TWO set.
Holland’s band, all top-notch musicians and as unassuming as the singer, may appear laid back in their approach but, they matched Royal’s incendiary performance note for note. Drummer Matt Retherford and percussionist Margaret Darling (who also provides some keyboard shading to the darker songs) expertly drive the music forward without overplaying or overshadowing the tunes with flashy displays. Kendall Bruns adds just the right amount of vocal support and his rootsy ukelele accompaniment keeps the music grounded in Americana. Jasmine Poole, who goes by the odd sobriquet “Wonky Tonk,” was filling in on bass and hitting all the right notes. As animated as she is off-stage, she tended to stay just out of the reach of the stage lights, pouring everything she had into her playing. Royal and the band started their set slow, with “Shore” from the first EP, VOLUME ONE, and built the tempo and the cascading emotional moments with strikingly brilliant songs like “Statues” and “The Grave,” leading into that final release on “Flamingo.” Lyrically, musically and emotionally, this is a thinking man’s band; in those euphoric moments, when word and melody and heart transcend the boundaries of what we call music, it stirs something deep in the soul. For me, on this night, Royal Holland stirred my soul.
If Veil reveled in punk’s more ghoulish, Hammer Horror side, Nervosas celebrated the early days of English punk, with equal parts Sex Pistols, Chelsea, Billy Idol’s Generation X and the Clash (with more than a touch of TSOL, Dead Kennedys and classic X thrown in for good measure); main vocalist and bass player Jeff even has Idol’s bleach blond punk cut, chiseled good looks and just the right amount of venom in his voice. The slash and burn attack of guitarist and second vocalist Mickey gives the tunes an air of chaos, punctuated by her backing vocals… more of a manic howl than anything else. As Nervosas’ sound occasionally threatens to uncoil, the group’s third member, Nick, manages to hold everything together with a thunderous – and surprisingly supple – approach to his drumming.
Seven of the set’s nine tunes came from the brand-spanking-new self-titled release from Dirtnap Records, which is more nuanced than the trio’s previous recordings. Even so, the buzzsaw guitars, pummeling drum attack and Jeff’s Ian Curtis wail on such graveyard ballads as “Night Room,” Quarantine” and “Arcadia” tended to tear at the jugular. Nervosas’ set proved to be as visceral an experience as that of Royal Holland but, where that seared the soul, this was more like a punch to the solar plexus… just like any punk band worth their salt should deliver. I look forward to each evolutionary advancement on future Nervosas records; I likewise look forward to more scorching, unapologetically balls-out live sets.
And so, it was on to the headliners: Saint Louis’ mighty Bunnygrunt, feting the release of their first album in six years, VOLUME FOUR. Opening with the high impact couplet of “Big Fake Out” (the first track from 1998’s JEN-FI album) and “South Kingshighway Bubblegum Factory” (from 2009’s MATT HARNISH AND OTHER DELIGHTS), the modified trio (figurehead and de facto leader Matt Harnish, drummer Eric Von Damage and Karen Reid’s more-than-capable semi-permanant fill-in, Ashley Hohman) joked and played their way through a set that was long on songs from the new record, while still offering the fans a good dose of the songs they’ve come to love over the band’s twnety-plus year career. The house was rockin’, with the crowd singing along, holding a running conversation with Harnish between tunes and giggling like school girls at the stories and commentary from the stage. And, of course, who could not have a good time hearing bent little pop ditties like “Transportation Pants” (from the group’s first full-length, ACTION PANTS, which eventually devolved into the trashy, thrashy “1000% Not Creepy”), “Young Abe Lincoln” and “Chunt Bump?”
Von Damage and Hohman kept things tight but bouncy rhythmically, allowing Harnish the luxury of doing just about anything that came to mind melodically, including the occasional guitar freak-out, as on the Kinks’ “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” which morphed into “Led It Out,” a tune from the new record that‘s more than a nod and a wink to the dirigibly renamed New Yardbirds and their poppier predecessors. On “Frankie Is a Killer,” the bass and drums rolled and crashed underneath Matt’s dire warnings to protect your loved ones; the song, delivered wrapped in a pretty, jangly pop bow, featured a guitar solo that paid homage to the Saint Louis sound created by Johnnie and Chuck, lo, those many years ago. Ashley handled the vocals on the rambunctious “Still Chooglin’ (After All These Beers),” a number that’s equal parts Creedence Clearwater Revival swampy pop and early Stooges mayhem. “Don’t Forget Who Your Friends Are” turned into a purposefully sloppy train wreck, with a messed up kinda guitar solo that led to a full stop in the proceedings before charging back into the chorus.
Matt, Eric and Ashley showed off their rock ‘n’ roll chops from the get-go and, seeking to please the rabid crowd, pulled out every trick they had in their magician’s hat of musical stage magic, ensuring that everyone – from the long time, diehard fans to the newcomers like me – would long look back on this night with the fondest of memories. Now, who could possibly ask for more than that?