- photo credit: Jessica Panettieri
Elvis Perkins takes the stage alone in Communist-colored clothes, his top button buttoned Batesishly, a harmonica dangling from his neck like Bob Dylan. He starts a song and, one by one, then section by section, the band comes out to join him: the upright bass player, the drummer, the…tabletop-accordion player? The strings. The horns. By the end, the band numbers ten. (He has borrowed a few brass players from the opening act.) Only one is a woman; most of the men have beards, many have long hair; they wear fedoras and sweaters. It’s that de rigueur Dr. Fleet Foxdog look, rooted in the knotty earthy look of The Band with a Tin Pan Alley twist. They complement Perkins, their leader, who looks like a Trotskyite grad student, his hair cropped short and combed straight. (Thank goodness he no longer looks like this.) On record, his voice has a desperate warble. In person, it’s still idiosyncratic, frequently breaking in a faux-pubescent crack, but the pitch is more assured. The band finishes the song and, without too much ado, goes into the next one. There’s little space between most of the songs on the set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday night; often they blend right into one another. Let’s face it: a lot of these songs sound the same.
That doesn’t mean they’re not awesome. Elvis Perkins in Dearland, as the group is confusingly called, plays an American melting pot style of music: it’s rooted in mostly-acoustic rootsfolk, but strays in all directions, every foray into a traditionalist or bygone genre stamped with that unique Perkins sound: “Stay Zombie Stay,” off the band’s new EP “Doomsday,” blends mild evocations of electric 60s surf with a soul-inflected rhythm section; “Shampoo” boasts a slight whiff of Atlantic Records’ LBJ-era organ rock sound, if Eric Burdon sounded more like Woody Allen. They even dip into gospel on another number from the new EP, “Weeping Mary.” (Hell, the guy is named after Elvis Presley.) While the band may not boast the complex vocal harmonies of their bearded colleagues, they’re still solid: Perkins had a chorus of help on songs like “Dresden,” even a little help from the audience for “Slow Doomsday”. “You got it in the back,” he said, as we all hummed along. (Surely, he was speaking specifically to me, as my singalong harmonies were pitch perfect fifths.)
Perkins had a casual and friendly repartee with the audience, responding politely to obnoxious shouts, asking for a drink from “someone without swine flu”. He kept referring to Manhattan, where he’d played the night before, as “New York City,” as though he was somewhere else Saturday night—as though the unification of 1898 had never happened. They played a roughly two-hour set, saying that it was their last show for a while. (The MySpace page says they have a gig in New Haven next week.) “We’re kind of doing a blowout here tonight,” Perkins said. “Everything must go.” Among the highlights was “Send My Regards to Lonelyville,” a song I didn’t Get until I saw it live; Perkins sang it alone, backing himself with acoustic guitar, until mid-way the horn section burst out onto the balcony above, marched across, and cut out as abruptly as they’d emerged. This sense of mobile celebration reached its height in the “last” song, “[Fast] Doomsday”; the drummer traded his kit for a wear-able bass drum—the same one he’d strapped on earlier for an energetic rendition of “Hey”—together with the rest of the band creating a carnivalesque cross between a ska party and an impromptu parade through the Big Easy. You know—typically American things.
Watch a clip of the show from YouTube: