Friday, September 19, 2008

Veruca Salt @The Engine Room 10/17/05

Having neglected my best friends’ birthdays due to a financial strain, I had decided it would be great for the three of us to attend a concert together. I had designs on Nine Inch Nails, but several months of car troubles and a misunderstanding about ticket prices ($80 each?!?) kept that goal out of reach for several months. My boy Miguel’s uncle remedied my car’s primary ailment (for $425, after the $2000 I’d spent with an idiot mechanic’s shop on the recommendation of someone I’m no longer associated with,) and NIN tickets turned up in the $35-45 range. I hit the box office, picked up four passes, and was a happy camper. Within the same week, I was tossing through the Houston Press, a weekly independent newspaper, and scanned the bands coming to town. There, in a tiny little box, were the words "Veruca Salt." I squealed, which isn’t so unusual for my workplace at the time, so I didn’t attract much attention. I shouted the news out to some co-workers having a smoke break to their very mild interest. I would be seeing Veruca Salt and Nine Inch Nails in the same week with only one day separating them!

Working out the logistics of the Nine Inch Nails concert proved to be quite a challenge, and in the end one member was cycled out of my original group plan, with my brother finding himself at his first concert in seven years. The problems with the NIN posse were still weighing on my mind that Monday though, as was my dismay at Veruca Salt's venue, the Engine Room, which previously ruined my enjoyment of a Juliana Hatfield performance. Knowing all this might help you understand my trepidation about the Salts show, as Houston was now in the midst of a massive turnaround in the Astros’ season that led them to the play-offs. You could suddenly find tickets to events everywhere, like those NIN numbers I almost bought for $25. Tickets to Veruca Salt were, however, nonexistent. The Engine Room’s own website didn’t acknowledge the band’s presence until two days before the appearance, relying solely on the Press ads (in which it was one box out of a half-dozen or so tiny others). Even then, there was no price or time announced, only an opening act. After last time, I knew not to leave before 6:00 p.m., even in the face of Houston’s infamous freeway network at rush hour.

I made it out with blessedly few obstructions, finding the Engine Room’s front door already open. I entered to inquire about the start time, and was told 8:00, so I went out for bad food in the seven o’clock hour. I’d returned around eight to find a small line still waiting. After sitting around for a quarter hour, I returned to my car to finish off my leftovers, and finally got in after another fifteen minutes or so. The announced opener, Panic Prone, rolled out shortly after. The lead singer came out in bare feet and an unfortunate dress. She seemed to be going for an Evanescence sound, while her band was just as enamored with Black Album-era Metallica. The guitarist even bore an affected resemblance to the James Hetfield of that period, and the enthusiasm with which he twirled his hair was infectious. Their tubby keyboardist was similarly jazzed about getting local exposure, so it all started well enough. As the set continued though, the Amy Lee impression melted into something more akin to Ashley Simpson, including silly dramatic poses. The band had shot it’s load straight out, and as the night progressed I couldn’t blame them, because there seemed to be variable time pressures imposed on the opening acts.

Next up was a much more polished looking group out of L.A., Dig Jelly. These were the guys with a record pending release and stylized knit caps available at the t-shirt den. The leader singer was a diminutive, pig-tailed Asian girl who looked like Kobe Tai with an even larger man-made set of breasts tucked in a sports bra. The girl clearly took care of herself, with one of the tightest bodies I’ve ever seen, and the vocal talents to match her looks. No, I can’t recall too many hard-bodied songstresses of note either. She in fact sang rap-rock that at times sounded as political as Rage Against The Machine, but was laughable when delivered like those humorous Oriental whiggers I’ve seen on TV but never believed actually existed. Considering Panic Prone were pretty obviously local talent, it was surprising to hear them display more hooks in their first song than could be found in Dig Jelly’s whole act. I gave them a few songs before retiring back to a booth a few yards from the stage.

At this point the sequence of events gets fuzzy, but I’m going to say the next act was Porcelane for dramatic effect. I’m not actually sure which misspelling of "porcelain" they had taken for their name, but since their stuff sounded so modern-rock radio friendly as to render me senseless, I can’t say it really mattered. Points for their left-hand guitarist (by position amongst three, not by southpaw), who hopped around in an entertaining fashion.

On came the fourth opening act, after the second promise of Veruca Salt’s imminent arrival. By this point I began to wonder if I’d stumbled into a Twilight Zone episode in which one hapless audience would wait an eternity without ever… oh, wait, you’re familiar with Twilight Zone irony, so why finish the thought? We were to be treated to The Lovemakers out of Oakland. The male lead dressed like Scott Weiland, meaning a heroin-addict at a Pride parade. He danced like your dad when he’s got a buzz on, jumped offstage, rolled around, and simulated fornication. The keyboardist made the scene in a tan suit with a professional haircut, a Brit who reminded me of Fred Schneider as he bopped along in a rather stiff fashion under his computer monitor’s light. The drummer was a guy in a t-shirt, meaning he looked like every other drummer in history with two arms. The female lead was a WASPy chick, wearing a sheer shirt that betrayed a wilder side, with her black bra and shoulder-blade tattoo. She wore a red skirt that didn’t match her gorgeous stilettos with thick black ankle straps. She was also throwing out attitude the whole time, like a gin-soaked barfly with an acid tongue. They friggin’ ruled. I’d heard of the musical form called "electroclash," but I’m not enough of a geek to be down with that level of subdivision. I do know it sounded like new age and electronica, and that by the time they played "Shake That Ass" I was following orders. Half the room rushed to buy their CD after the set, but I thought better of it when I realized it would be an encumbrance during the main show. After the bitter disappointment that tainted my respect for Juliana Hatfield’s adventure, I wished to take no chances. Besides, you can pick it up at Amazon for $9.95.

And now… Veruca Salt. The appearance of the headliners caused a sea change, as the audience swiftly crowded the stage. All sins were forgiven and all eyes were on Louise and the crew. A previously lethargic bunch were now radiating as "Spiderman '79" and "Born Entertainer" opened the show. I think.

See, in preparation for the shows, I’d burned an MP3 disc for my car stereo, providing me with most of the catalog of NIN and VS. I’d never paid much attention to "Queens of the Stone Age" outside of singles for instance, so I made sure to keep their first album in rotation. In the case of VS, I’d made a point of excluding all Nina Gordon songs. I mean, I’d heard "Resolver" for frig’s sake, and didn’t want any embarrassing moments, like that douche that kept asking for "Forsythia." I knew the biggest Nina-penned numbers would have to get played anyway. This was Houston after all, where I heard the White Stripes play "Fell In Love With A Girl" through probable gritted teeth to appease Redneck "fans." This would also give me a chance to familiarize myself with the good and bad specific to Louise. A side effect of this process was to cloud my memory of which songs I heard live, which I was jamming on the ride to & from, and the sequence of either. I’m reasonably certain everything I list was played live, erring on the side of omission, so that’s that.

Louise greeted us in Spanish, which prompted a brief conversation in a tongue not my own with a Latina who I’d noted also arrived early to the event. The crowd roared as it wound down with the words, "Chicas de los Volcano" with a smile on "Weezie’s" lips. The band would continue to rock through "Shutterbug," "Straight," "Used to Know Her," "Victrola," and "Officially Dead." The set included copious new, unavailable material that was declared a part of a forthcoming EP to be made available on their website "in a matter of days." The new stuff sounded excellent, although my bodily appreciation of the show diminished as I switched my mental reel-to-reel on. This was the first point I was aware that I couldn’t really make out the lyrics, an unimportant facet when I was singing along to the stuff I knew. Highlights were "Blood On My Hands" and the sleepless "Days and Days."

Early on Louise had passed out a dozen or so roses, which she began tossing to the audience as a thank you for coming. She kissed a yellow rose, which I caught as it fell to the side of me toward an attractive blonde. Feeling guilty that I perhaps snatched something not intended for me, I handed her the rose and moved on.

Still afraid of a Hatfield incident with someone who could better wield an ax in anger, I was slightly away and to the left of the front of the stage. This provided me with a swell view of guitarist Stephen totally playing the rock star. Stephen turned fans on with his histrionics, often leaning well off stage with a well placed knee or neck, occasionally allowing us to stroke and fondle his guitar. Mareea’s reserved quiet cool was about as far on the other end of the spectrum from Stephen as she was on the stage, but fans who felt cheated were hopefully consoled by their view of her pretty face. Toby was the first band member to get a shout-out though, prompting Louise to note Stephen’s assertion that she’s a frustrated drummer trapped in a guitarist’s body. Speaking of which, fans scolded Louise for inhaling ciggies into her lungs as a terrible influence, but it didn’t seem to take any spring out of her rather elevated step (nice shoes, said the still-insistent heterosexual non-fetishist once again.)

Louise was absolutely radiant, clearly relishing every second of her return to the stage. She seemed perfectly happy with the turnout, only noting that "you could hear a bottle drop" as her water missed its mark. She was very playful with us, engendering a nice rapport. She seemed especially fond of a hippie-looking couple who remained front & center for every act. Upon noting the male looked familiar, he responded, "Jesus?" While the Metallica-dude from Panic Prone remained to enjoy all of the other acts, but especially Dig Jelly’s lead, I was surprised to find that very same pixie sidling up to me for a better view. Seeing the calculated image DJ seemed to craft, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was taking notes on how to work a crowd, but she was smiling and jamming all the same.

The big closer was "Hellraiser," which prompted plentiful fist-pumping and devil horns (while I threw Spider-Man hands, as it seemed apropos.) Lord knows I did enough head-bobbing and twirling to occasionally lose my balance, like I cared. The group gleefully exited, prompting the requisite calls for an encore. Louise eventually returned for a solo "Pale Green," but banter with the audience caused her to lose composure. After getting "back into character," she finished the song, before joining the band for a rousing "Seether." By the end, everyone was spent. The blond with the rose got the set list, while I spotted a pick Stephen had tossed to claim as my souvenir. My ears rang the rest of the night, and I was heartened to find I’d just experienced probably the second best show I’d ever seen, pretty much exclusively because of how awesome and capable the Salts were. This was despite wearying opening acts, difficult traffic, long waits (the show ended at 1:00 a.m.,) low attendance, and a lousy venue. NIN didn’t hold a candle to them two days later. It just goes to show, you can make up any excuses you like, but nothing can turn a day right-side up like an enthusiastic bands rocking your socks off.

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