It was midway through their song “Mutt-Feast” that Diarrhea Planet frontman Jordan Smith popped a string. Awful timing, too, because it was right before this crucial breakdown where everyone in the band drops out so Smith can rip off a few crunchy, palm-muted riffs. The energy was there, the power stance in full effect, but with a string flopping around it wasn’t the prettiest sounding thing—but when that part ended the entire group launched into a symphony of fret tapping glory, much to the delight of the handful of fans of the excellent up-and-coming Nashville group in attendance.
“Can I get one of the guitars off the wall?” he joked afterwards, looking at the myriad autographed axes that dot the walls at Asbury Park’s legendary Stone Pony. As a Gibson SG was fetched to replace Smith's Squire Jaguar, guitarist Emmet Miller plucked that opening line to Hot Chocolate’s “I Believe In Miracles” and the next thing you know the rest of the band—guitarist, Brent Toler, bassist Mike Boyle, and drummer Evan Bird, who usually handles the fourth guitar, but was subbing in for an absent, and much missed, Casey Weissbuch—jumped in, turning that cheese-tastic late night lovers anthem into a bona fide metal vamp complete with dueling guitars soaring in harmonic splendor.
It was a wonderful celebration of the power and versatility of the six string, and especially fitting for the occasion. Last night’s show at the Stone Pony marked the kick off of a quick string of East Coast dates featuring three of the exciting rock bands out there: Diarrhea Planet, Screaming Females, and Titus Andronicus. While the Planet’s profile is still low, that unbridled love of rock of all sorts is exactly the kind of stuff they specialize in. They released their debut LP, Loose Jewels, on Infinity Cat last year, they’ve got another in the works, and they’ll be on the opposite side of an upcoming split 7” with Titus. Their contribution, “Babyhead,” was one of many fine tuned pop songs complete with scorching fret work the band played last night, along with “Your Head,” “Fauser,” and “Warm Ridin’.” All of which were accompanied by shredtacular acrobatics, and we’re not talking your dad’s bland back-to-back, or down-on-both-knees type stuff—we’re talking Emmett, right leg firmly atop the PA in front of him, brandishing his axe in a display of rock supremacy, with Jordan sneaking in between his legs playing an equally tasty solo. It was enough to leave any fan’s neck aching, and plenty to convert some new fans, including the eight-year-old who snapped a pic of Emmett wielding his instrument aloft as the band closed their set with the epic “Ghost With A Boner.”
Of course we can’t get this far without saying that last night was just as much about the guitar as it was about the state of New Jersey, with two of the Garden State’s best bands currently in operation playing on hallowed ground. Titus frontman Patrick Stickles answered questions about his favorite Jersey spots (diner: Empress Diner in Fair Lawn; record store: Vintage Vinyl in Fords) while he fixed his own popped string, and the crowd erupted in cheers—and one solid “Jersey, baby!”—after Screaming Females frontwoman Marissa Paternoster dropped the band’s hometown of New Brunswick.
But those cheers were nothing compared to what Screaming Females elicited from the crowd after a set filled with plenty of gems from Castle Talk and Power Move, along with a few new one’s from their upcoming record, Ugly. I’ll admit that this was my first time seeing Screaming Females live, and my god are they just a band that demands every iota of your attention. They had the audience bopping about during cuts like “I Don’t Mind It” and “A New Kid” but the cocktail of Jarrett Dougherty’s pounding drums, a rubbery bass line from King Mike, and one of Paternoster’s (thankfully) many head spinning guitar solos, was enough to leave your jaw unhinged. Not that the crowd just stood there and gaped, though I kinda did: The fullness of their live sound never wavers, impressive especially when you take into account the fact that (a) there’s just three of them, (b) they’re all relentlessly tearing it up on stage, and (c) Paternoster’s got like five different guitar parts or something to hit you with, and she never misses a note.
One of Screaming Females’ other undeniable assets is, of course, Paternoster’s bone chilling voice—it’s affecting on record, for sure, but live it just overwhelms. The control she wields over her pipes is stunning, so much so that she’s able to harmonize with whatever she’s playing on guitar, as she did on stellar new track “Red Hand.” Often the end of each line dissolves into this beautiful oblong bellow that sounds like it could just engulf you entirely; and it did during “Foul Mouth,” and then out of nowhere she unleashes this shrill scream that knocks you on your feet followed by another guitar attack that keeps you there.
Crowd completely jazzed, it was time for semi-hometown heroes Titus Andronicus, who started not with “A More Perfect Union” or “Titus Andronicus” (though both were played, and both were awesome), but Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town.” It was absolutely awesome, and actually set an interesting tone for the rest of the set. As Titus—in a new incarnation that’s just six days old—ran through their set, I couldn’t help but feel that they were becoming, well, a more fun-loving band. Not that they didn’t always enjoy what they were doing, but if you kick off a show with a rousing rendition of freaking “The Boys Are Back in Town”—which features some of the most smile-inducing guitar work ever—even the clenched-fist cry of “And I’m sorry dad no / I’m not making this up!” on “The Battle of Hampton Roads” is gonna sound just a tad more upbeat.
This is exactly the tone that Titus hit on several of the new tracks they played last night. There was “In A Big City,” with a sweat drenched Stickles running around playing stadium-status licks, and the up-tempo punk swinger “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With the Flood of Detritus” (which will appear on that split 7”), with its gleeful choruses of “built to last, built to last, built to last!” and then “thrown away, thrown away, thrown away!” that everyone was already singing along with. Most impressive was this 9 minute (give or take) monster with a title that went unspoken that featured multiple parts sections that flow seamlessly into each other, big solos, an awesome false ending, even more big solos, and classic Stickles piss-and-moan vocals with his mouth smushed up against the microphone. Yet there was this openness to it, a palpable joy as if the band has discovered the best way to make sense of the existential abyss that constantly surrounds them is not to embrace the benign indifference of the world, but the sheer, undeniable, indescribable, majestic power of rock and roll. And you better believe it’s always been that way, the band seemed to suggest as “Titus Andronicus Forever,” morphed, with barely a note changed, into a Back to The Future-inspired blues jam session with nods to “Travelin’ Man” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” that left the audience twisting the night away. There are few things in this world more powerful than a great guitar solo that just tears through your ear drums, runs circles around your brain, and then plummets into your gut, reminding you of all that’s good and great about the world and people around you.
Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz