Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: The Wombats, Static Jacks, & Flagship @ The Middle East

The Wombats, Static Jacks, & Flagship @ The Middle East, Boston, MA - April 24, 2012
Review: Dave Bolton

So here we are again, it’s another “popular” band from the UK playing in a venue that seems slightly small. If I was confused by the sight of Kasabian failing to sell out the House of Blues in Boston, I am slightly baffled by The Wombats playing in front of 575 people in Cambridge.

To be fair, the show was sold out. It’s just the venue is very small. Put it this way, there wasn’t a lot of room to move about once the headline band came on. If you wanted to see a quirky band from Liverpool surrounded by drunk students and the indie fashionistas that frequent Cambridge MA, then The Middle East was the place to be.

There is no doubt that The Wombats are quirky. They have songs that talk about drinking champagne with Schumacher (I presume Michael, it could be Ralf but they are soccer fans so it might even be Harold/Toni) or dancing to Joy Division. They are a three-piece band that bound on stage with energy and play their brand of indietronica with nothing less than total competency.

They got the crowd moving, they engaged in banter and they played some half-decent songs. I didn’t dislike what they were doing, I tapped my feet in all the right places and I even sang along to "Kill The Director," agreeing wholeheartedly that this is no Bridget Jones.

But like so many things in my musical life, I found myself asking one question; would John Peel have played them on his radio show?

The answer is probably yes. I don’t know for sure because Peel shuffled off this mortal coil in 2004 but The Wombats seem to have all of the attributes needed to appeal to the student demographic. They come from England, the lead singer looks like Robert Smith, they play songs that you can sing the lyrics to while holding a beer in one hand and they make knowing references to pop culture in their songs.

The only word that sums them up is quirky. Which becomes a problem. There is more to English music than the ability to knock out a four-minute pop song that you can listen to in your room while you discuss your favorite Monty Python sketches. I might be wrong, but that seemed to be the sort of audience that The Wombats want to appeal to.

There is nothing new on show here. Supergrass, Arctic Monkeys, Pulp, Blur, Kaiser Chiefs and the mighty Half Man Half Biscuit have all trodden this well-worn path before (and done it a lot better). I get it, you come from Liverpool and you need to prove that your Scouse wit is in full working order. You want us to know that enjoyable songs don’t have to deal with protests or how the world is generally fucked. Which it is, no matter what influential band from Manchester you want to dance to.

To me, it says more about The Wombats that I actually came to see the support band. It’s not the first time that I have done this; I bought a ticket for Manchester Orchestra because Biffy Clyro was the support. So I wasn’t really expecting a lot from the headliners. The Wombats were OK - if they were playing at a festival and I didn’t have to move from my spot, I would watch them again. Everyone around me was having a good time and ultimately that is what matters.

But I came to see The Static Jacks. I saw them in New York in January when they supported Mission of Burma and they were a highlight of my trip to the Big Apple (apart from meeting Damien and Chris, natch). [Haha flattery will get you everywhere, my friend. -- Ed.]

The Static Jacks aren’t quirky. At The Middle East, they play fast and loud radio-friendly tunes that remind me of The Undertones in their prime. The songs punch you in the head and tell you to listen, lead singer Ian Devaney whirling around the small stage as if Morrissey (who I know isn’t dead) had been reincarnated in the form of a bloke from New Jersey.

On guitars Henry Kaye and Michael Sue-Poi (wearing the same dubious cat t-shirt that I witnessed in NYC), just pound out the riffs while Nick Brennan keeps the beat flowing. The Static Jacks have just returned from touring Europe with the headliners and the experience seems to have suited them. When I saw them in NYC, their songs impressed me but on Tuesday night, they added another dimension.

Before the show starts, Devaney spends some time stalking about the stage looking for the best places to put some pieces of cardboard with “art” on. The images are familiar to anyone who has their debut LP – If You’re Young – but it’s when he grabs one during the song "Defend Rosie" and waves it above his head like some sort of totem, that you understand that these are guys starting their journey and, to them, it’s all still fun. The Wombats had fun as well, but it doesn’t feel as spontaneous as the Jacks.

Is it punk or is it pop? It’s another question with no answer, another reason to enjoy the show rather than try to analyze the appeal of The Static Jacks but for 40 minutes, they are the sultans of The Middle East.

It would be unfair to not mention the opening band of the evening, Flagship. Another young band, this time from Charlotte (NC), they wear their influences firmly on their musical sleeve. Spoiler alert: they have listened to a lot of U2.

They were genuinely excited to be here (they said so) and their EP was available on iTunes. The fact that you can download their tracks is no guarantee of quality but they were solid and there was nothing wrong with the generic arena-rock that they performed. They didn’t seem to have a lot of energy, they were earnest in their endeavors but the lead singer was spending so much time channeling his inner Bono that there was no real room for anything else. It has been said that imitation is a sincere form of flattery but Flagship are destined to become one of those bands that spend a lot of their career in venues like The Middle East. Which is a shame, because they probably think that they are doing something right.

Winners on the night? The Static Jacks, an easy points victory over the visitors from across the pond. The Wombats may come from Liverpool but there is little danger of them ever being talked about in the same breath as another band from Merseyside. You need to be more than quirky to succeed in this game.


Thanks Dave! The Wombats played NYC's Webster Hall last night, but you can check them out on the rest of their tour as they head westward through these United States before returning to Europe for a string of festival dates.

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