Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Downbeat 5: Smoke & Mirrors

The Downbeat 5

Smoke & Mirrors
Steel Cage Records

Boston's The Downbeat 5 have been around for nine years. Since founding members JJ Rassler and Jenn D'Angora both have careers in the music industry but not as musicians, only two studio albums have been released. Their third release, Smoke & Mirrors is an unedited recording from an in studio performance with 100+ since it was more practical then getting recording equipment into a bar. With the free beer and pizza supplied by the band for those in attendance, it was a novel idea to bring the bar to the studio. The Downbeat 5, although musically oriented towards British Invasion and garage rock, have a certain Boston grit that translates musically into a bluesier but a loud, raw bar band at the same time. The opening cover of "Come on Now" by The Kinks is an old standard that JJ played in his 1965 band The Deserters as well as with Boston garage rock legends DMZ, of which he was a founding member with Jeff Connolly of The Lyres. They're version is a lot tougher and garners a hard distinction with rhythm guitar/vocalist Jenn's trademark blues scratch and howl. "Army of One" from 2005's Victory Hotel is a heavy rocker that falls somewhere in between garage rock but then winds up as punk a la Patti Smith. One of the traits that make The Downbeat 5 sound more like a bar band is their affection for any number of revolving covers in their live sets. An odd treat on Smoke & Mirrors is a cover of Velvet Underground's "Foggy Notion", which bears only a slight resemblance to the original in Jenn's attempt at emulating Lou Reed's quirkiness, but the pace and energy they put into it almost makes on think of how the song would have sounded if covered by The Ramones. The surf rock original "Thief of Baghdad" has some super laid back, groovy bass from Mike Yocco, but just blisters in continuous drumrolls from Eric Almquist that go well beyond most surf instrumentals. The continuous refrains are punctuated by some of the coolest guitarwork characteristic of the genre, but louder, harder, and with enough differences in each new lick to make it exciting.

Anyone who's seen The Downbeat 5 can attest to their power as an act. What takes most immediate notice is Jen D'Angora's scorching vocals. Her scratchy throated pipes pack a whallop that's somewhere between Janice Joplin in her heyday, but even tougher. At times, it's really hard to imagine someone of her stature belting out songs that sound rougher and tougher than most people you've heard. It's impressive. When one adds JJ Rassler's great songwriting, distinct guitar punch on top, then an assemblage of well placed covers, it's an awfully loud, fun rock 'n' roll night at the bar. But the adjective that really describes The Downbeat 5 is raw, whether it's Jen's throat, JJ's axe, some of the best 'live' drumwork or the entire thing thrown together, these veterans play it raw; with all the enthusiasm and energy one could attribute to great rock 'n' roll. Their cover of The Yardbirds "Rack My Mind" is a good illustration, but the words still don't do it justice. The cover of The Animals "Outcast" has a similar approach but goes to a whole new level in sounding Jen is leading everyone and they're trying to keep up. The music is perfectly in sync while the backing vocals approach a beer lubricated bar sing a long. I think you gain a new appreciation for a lot of great rock songs that nearly none of us heard live and for many of us, haven't heard at all by having them taken out of their original context and thrown into a lively bar scene. In doing so, one gets a glimpse of how great the songs are, but also how great a band has to be to pull them off so well by making them sound new and full of more energy that they originally had. On Smoke & Mirrors, The Downbeat 5 not only succeed, but bring those garage rock songs into bar room glory. I seriously doubt if there's a better way to appreciate those songs. Also, The Downbeat 5 are essentially a live band. Although their two studio recordings, The Downbeat 5 and Victory Motel are great and have some real surprises like "Dum Dum Ditty" or The Shangri Las "Out In The Streets," the real power of this band is in their live performance. There aren't too many bands out there that can stand equal to them for a live show.

I've included two videos since one isn't enough to give a good idea of them. The first of from South by Southwest 2007.

The second couldn't be used on its own since it's not a bar, but you can agree that performing New Year's Eve 2007 on the front steps of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square is just a great song and great footage. Enjoy.

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