Send More Scuds!

Scud Mountain Boys
with Oh Susanna
The Starfish Room
Vancouver, B.C.
Saturday, March 29, 1997

Review by Darren Gawle

Is this becoming a trend? A few weeks ago Star 69 had to take over headlining duties after Space bailed out of their show at the last minute, and by most accounts the result was less than spectacular. In tonight's case, however, you're almost glad Vic Chesnutt cancelled his portion of the tour (he's off "finding himself," apparently), because the Scud Mountain Boys were thus left to show that they deserve a spotlight all to themselves. Those of you who either opted to refund your tickets or troop down to Graceland to see the newest band to garner the coveted Noel Gallagher Stamp of Approval (i.e. Kula Shaker), well, you missed the boat.

Oh Susanna (not a band, just Vancouver's own Suzie Ungerleider and her guitar) starts the show off in style. Normally I have about as much patience for solo acoustic performances as I do for the George Massey tunnel at five p.m. Oh Susanna, though, doesn't follow the well-beaten path to the shrine of Ani DeFranco/James Taylor that a gazillion or so other solo performers do, and the world's a better place for it.

Ungerleider has that rare ability to recapture American mythology that places her in the rich tradition of Leadbelly, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen (during his Nebraska period). For her, songs about driving vacations ("Missoula" and "Bridge") turn into bleak visions of Bonnie & Clyde burnouts somewhere in the American heartland, and "Jackson Wilson" (no, not "Jackie Wilson") gives us the lines "Cheyenne slaughter up at sandcreek road / Standin' in the water full of six steel jacket holes." Oh Susanna's is the best music that never ended up on the soundtrack to Ken Burns' The Civil War documentary.

Having taken all of the first song to hit her stride, Ungerleider's no-bullshit delivery quickly establishes 'chilling post-country' as the order of the evening, and she manages to hold the audience's attention for most of her show -- no mean feat for a Saturday night audience, who appreciate her delightfully lascivious take on the Stones' "Let It Bleed."

The Scud Mountain Boys are proof that Sub Pop is making great strides in moving beyond its indie/grunge reputation: bassist Frank Padellaro is probably the only guy in music these days who can wear a plaid lumberjack shirt like Nirvana never existed, and that ain't bad.

For the Boys, musicianship and dynamics are not so much qualities as they are badges of honour. They keep the arrangements simple and to the point, letting the music add up to above and beyond the sum of its instrumental parts: here Tom Shea's mandolin refers each song to its country & western roots, there Bruce Tull's dazzling work with slide guitar and volume pedal work to help the melodies soar rather than suffer from Nashville overload. What you get, then, are songs like "Massachusetts" and "In a Ditch" serving to remind you that, in a world of compromise and MTV lowest common denominator, good music will never let you down.

Then you realize that "In A Ditch" is about the death of a junkie girl, and the sky-scraping melody breaks your heart with even greater force. The key musical point in tonight's performance comes during the chorus of "Kneivel," when vocalist Joe Pernice sings "It wouldn't take much living to see / That I'm only free when I'm flying." The band builds to a crescendo of steel pedal guitar and harmonized vocals, and as Pernice sings "I'm flying," suddenly we're lifted far beyond our immediate surroundings into the realm of something truly stunning.

All is not self-pitying introspection in Scud Mountain country, however, because the Boys prove themselves adept at displaying (ye gods!) a sense of humour. "Cigarette Sandwich" sets off a minor hoedown instead of a moshpit and prompts requests from the audience for "Crazy Train." Joe Pernice introduces "100 Dollars" as being about a dip into Bob Barker's hundred-dollar pocket for some true love and bestiality, and then announces his intentions to start a war between Matador and Sub Pop, just like the one between Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur's rap labels: "If I see Bob Pollard, I'm gonna choke that fucker!"

Stay tuned in April for a double album and, hopefully, another visit by the Scud Mountain Boys before the year is out. Crying in your beer never felt this good.

First published in Drop-D Magazine on April 19, 1997

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