Friday, June 24, 2011

Live: Bush Tetras

When: 6/10
Where: Le Poisson Rouge

Another way overdue live review, but timely because the Bush Tetras are playing TONIGHT at 285 Kent and you should hear them.

For those who don't know who the Tetras are, here's a brief history: in New York City in the late 70's, a group of artists reacted to the commercialization of punk by making music that could never be co-opted by the record industry because it was pretty much unlistenable.  That movement, dubbed "No Wave," included a broad variety of bands but all were noisy and eschewed conventional song structures and most were non-musicians.  One of the main groups was the Contortions who had a guitarist named Pat Place.  Once No Wavers had made their point, all the chaos started getting a little old, so they moved on to other things.  Pat Place, along with a few other women from the scene, moved on to Bush Tetras, a group that took the dissonance and aggression of No Wave and channeled it into tight funk grooves that are jagged but actually danceable.

The Bush Tetras were a great band and an influential one, although they never reached massive commercial success (they weren't exactly aiming for the Top 40, obviously).

When I saw them on June 10, they had some gray hairs, but they were still as great a band as ever.  They played old "hits" as well as some "newer" songs.  Although original bassist Laura Kennedy is not in the mix, but Julia Murphy still bangs out some of the best b-lines I've ever heard - funky grooves but with that special angularity that sets the Tetras apart.  (In case you're wondering, Kennedy hasn't played with the band in ages because of serious health problems.  In fact, that was one of the major reasons for the band's 2007 reunion - she needed a liver transplant and her old band reformed to raise funds.  Yes, they were successful and last we heard, she's got a new liver and is slowly rebuilding her health.)

The two most important band members are still very much in top form.  They don't shy away from looking middle-aged, especially vocalist Cynthia Sley, who looks pretty much like every other artsy 50-ish woman from the Village, you know the kind of old hippie lady with the long hair and the simple, flowy clothes.  Pat Place has always stood in a bit of contrast to this, with cropped hair and a tough, androgynous look.  She's definitely the punk nihilist to Sley's sage flowerchild.

But Sley's lyrics are not so flowery.  The band closed on their most well-known song, "Too Many Creeps," but all of their songs have a similar sense of mixed paranoia and ennui.  Place's searing, discordant guitar certainly adds to the sense of claustrophobia but the entire band and their entire oeuvre seems to say "We're so bored and we're so totally screwed, but let's have fun and get down."  Of course, they have some less nihilistic political points but it's all coated in the crime of New York City (and in particular the shithole that was New York City in the late 70's).

Most reunited bands are lucky if they don't look ridiculous doing what they do (the same could be said of bands that just never break up, amiright Mr. Jagger?) but the Tetras are miles beyond that.  Maybe because they're so sincere, maybe because they're having so much fun, maybe because they never had a whole lot of glory in the first place so they haven't got some youthful folly they're trying to reclaim, they are as cool as they ever were.  Maybe even more so.  Yeah, they are who they are - it's not perfect - but they play tighter and rock harder than most of the wussy youngsters making indie "rock" today.  So kids, take notes - this is how it's done.

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