Bowery Ballroom, Januay 13, 2012
Four men sat around a small table, lit only by a squat blue lamp. It was about as intimate as you could get at the Bowery Ballroom: no bold shifts in the lighting scheme, no moments of musicians charging into the crowd, no squalls of feedback or lengthy stretches of improvisation. Outside, the temperature had dropped below freezing; inside, a moderate crowd gathered and watched the men as they made music around the table. These were the Scud Mountain Boys, reunited and playing the first of a series of East Coast shows. This particular reunion wasn’t tied to a major festival appearance or a series of deluxe reissues of older recordings. Instead, as singer/guitarist Joe Pernice explained a few songs in, the four members of the band — Pernice, guitarist Bruce Tull, bassist Stephen Desaulniers, and drummer/mandolinist Tom Shea—had decided to reunite after the death of a mutual friend.
The quartet had been active in the early-to-mid-1990s, releasing three albums total: Pine Box, Dance the Night Away, and Massachusetts. Their most well-known alumnus is Pernice, who’s been active as a solo artist, a member of Pernice Brothers, and a novelist in the fourteen-odd years since this group played their last show. And their music could easily be filed using the alt-country tag: there’s a folk and country influence present throughout all of their songs, and lap steel is used judiciously.
More important to their music, however, is the fact that they understand the value of contradictions in their songwriting. One of the most beautiful songs they’ve written is delivered as a sort of confession, its narrator autopsying a failed relationship and begging for reconciliation. Except that its title, “Grudge Fuck,” undercuts the sentiment, turning a wistful and plaintive song into something much more cynical. When introducing me to The Early Year—a collection of the band’s first two albums, released by Sub Pop in 1997 and recently reissued by Pernice’s Ashmont Records—a friend pointed out that there’s a surreal, almost Gothic quality to some of their earlier songs. For all that the songwriting on Massachusetts points pretty directly towards Pernice’s move into confessionals and storytelling, the quartet can also summon up a terrific sense of menace. Death is never far away, whether the barely sublimated violence in “Silo” or the life lost to drugs in “In a Ditch.”
The evening’s highest points came when the group was at its most subdued. The more rock-oriented songs, while still solid, hewed more to an alt-country template; those that relied entirely on the playing of strings, effective vocal harmonies, and nimble lyrics left a deeper impact. Tull’s lap steel served as the group’s secret weapon: it never wore out its welcome, nor did it ever feel like a signifier of genre as opposed to an essential component of the song being played. The only significant glitch came from a false start on “Grudge Fuck,” which was shrugged off with some self-deprecating banter from Pernice. The mood of commentary between songs varied, from Pernice’s bittersweet explanation of how the reunion came to be to a later story, told to introduce a cover of “Wichita Lineman,” that involved Pernice wrongly (and hilariously) misreading an inscription from Jimmy Webb.
“Don’t ask for nothing; you’ll never be let down,” Pernice sang on “Peter Graves’ Anatomy,” which opened the night. That statement may well have served as the antithesis of the night’s mood: for all that the group repeatedly joked that the crowd’s applause was too kind, they were in solid form, managing to be both tight and casual. While the audience might never have expected such a reunion to take place, the response to these songs revealed an audience that was anything but let down. By playing old songs in a familiar space, they made them feel intimate and transporting; no small feat for a group playing their first live show in fourteen years.