Sunday, September 14, 2008

Juliana Hatfield at The Engine Room (2005)

Juliana Hatfield by Rob (Aquaman Shrine) Kelly

The Engine Room is a long-standing Houston dive, resting in the shadow of the Toyota Center. My first concert there was to feature one of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters, Juliana Hatfield. I’d gone weeks prior to pick-up an advance ticket, at which point the clerk up front shrugged, "Don’t worry about it. The show’s not going to sell out." I insisted, and the bartender wrote me out a receipt for my lousy twelve bucks. I’d arrived hours early, because the Engine Room tends to open whenever they damned well feel like it, and heard "Dirty Dog" being rehearsed through the walls. Odd bits of strumming were eventually followed by silence, so I made my way along the muddied sidewalks to grab some food and kill time. Houston had seen rainfall for the better part of a week, so everyone was miserable and waterlogged. I returned to sit outside the club for another hour before the doors opened.

Opening act Absolute Pistol played to general disinterest. I wasn’t at all impressed with the joint itself, and I was further concerned at my inability to hear the singer’s meager talents. I had trouble making out the vocalist of the follow-up band as well, but "the Damnwells" proved to be excellent nonetheless. A visibly irritated Juliana finally appeared before the admittedly slight audience, which had thankfully filled out somewhat during the previous set, but was still in need of winning-over. From my point of reference dead center of the stage (I could look up the poor girl’s nostrils) Hatfield’s tiny voice was basically inaudible most of the time.

Hatfield played some the perfunctory stuff, like "My Sister" and (thankfully) "Universal Heart-Beat," but the set was filled with unpalatable off-center choices. These included tracks off her Blake Babies reunion and Those Girls side project (still haven’t bought either), poor catalog selections (the godawful "Mabel"), and plentiful representation of her latest album (but no "Dirty Dog," a fun if forgettable number). Requests were denied in favor of more "In Exile Deo" work, with blame laid at the feet of the record company. Attempts at banter with the audience turned hostile, likely due to the difficulty in communication and Hatfield’s oft-noted prickliness. After her attempts to raise applause for a returning member of the Damnwells failed (again, who could hear?) Hatfield turned into full-on bitch mode. After finishing her set list, she tossed her guitar aside and stormed off-stage. There would be no encore… just one straggly-looking guy I’d seen throughout the day asking a roadie for her set list. I picked-up a copy of the Damnwells debut album from a band member after the show, trying to apologize for my town, and he was really understanding.

To this day, nearly four years later, I still get depressed thinking about Juliana Hatfield. I haven't bought one of her albums since, though I enjoyed some MP3s she offered on her site for free. I hate that I'm still not over one lousy experience, but it really was the worst I ever had at a concert. I'd hoped I'd get over it when I bought tickets to a Lemonheads show Hatfield was to open for, but she canceled on short notice. I ended up working that night anyway, and friends I'd given tickets to got lost and never made the show. It's like a curse.

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