ARCHIVE of District of Cacophony

January 6, 2010 | REVIEWS

Versus & Soft Power @ Black Cat, 12/12/09

This has been a busy/strange time… holidays, epic snowstorms, bouts of H1N1, apartment/living situation drama. As a result I missed a lot of shows (and why didn’t somebody tell me that Grant Hart played at the Velvet Lounge???) and anticipate missing too many more. But one that I really didn’t want to miss (though maybe I’d have traded it for Grant Hart — damn…) turned out to be the last show I saw in 2009: my favorite band, Versus, for the first time in like 8 years.

So I have been complaining about going to too many reunion shows, but then, Versus never was exactly broken up, so it’s ok that I went, right? They really are probably my all-time favorite band (the only other contender is Sonic Youth); I saw them play a lot of times back in the late ’90s and beginning of the ’00s; I have basically everything they’ve ever recorded and know the bulk of their lyrics by heart. Versus have played some occasional gigs in the time since they went on hiatus, including at least once or twice here in DC (Teenbeat anniversaries, for example), but I haven’t been able to go to any of them. Now, though, it seems like they are really “together,” playing a fair amount, recording a new album (!).

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this show, though. I checked out a few recent performances on youtube and they left me uncertain and even a little nervous. The line-up has shifted a bit, as they now feature Richard and Fontaine with Ed on drums and a woman named Margaret on violin. It was a little strange, but I found that I could accept this line-up as Versus once I started watching them play live. It helped that the two frontpersons of the band seemed loose and comfortable, chatting and joking around with the audience. It was like, oh yeah, this is Versus alright.

I ended up totally enjoying it (also, it was the first night I went out after getting swine flu, and I had a couple of beers and seemed to be healthy). They played a fair amount of new stuff and mostly earlier old material. It sounded good. The violin (and occasional keyboard) fit in better than I feared. Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t have remembered that Versus ever had any songs in the past with strings, but they played “Deep Red” and it sounded a lot better live than the old EP version, it actually was quite pretty. Versus were always pretty good at pulling off pretty songs amidst the harder indie rock. They did some other old songs like “Be-9,” “Circle,” and “Crazy” (by request). When somebody shouted out for “Morning Glory,” Fontaine commented that, since Ed didn’t play on those later records, he didn’t know them, but then they went ahead and did a pretty decent version of it for the encore.

I couldn’t entirely make up my mind about the new line-up and the new material… it will take me a while to decide what I think. It was totally good, but I kind of missed the latter-era line-up with Patrick and James. Richard is a brilliant guitarist but I think having James on guitar added a lot of depth… I have clear memories of the first time I saw Versus (this was the 3-brother line-up) and watching James play the lead riff on “Glitter of Love.” On the other hand it was interesting to hear how the violin integrated with the band; also the last Versus album, Hurrah, was not that great. Basically, I’m willing to let this new form of Versus grow on me if they stick around long enough. I would absolutely go see them again (contemplating whether they are worth trips to New York for) and I’m looking forward to the album.

At a certain point the quartet on stage was joined by a young chap on guitar (I believe they called him “Chris” but this was almost a month ago so I’m not certain) and Fontaine asked how many of us in the audience had a copy of The Stars Are Insane and proceeded to explain that Chris was the little kid in the album art. Crazy! So then my friends asked me whether or not that was Richard and Fontaine’s kid and I was like “I don’t even think they are a couple! he is maybe a nephew or something?” But it made me think. All those years of listening to this band, I never really even thought about their personal lives and relationships. Their lyrics are full of relationship sagas, but I never got the sense those stories were about each other. I honestly have no idea if they ever were/are a couple. How indie rock — boys and girls singing together and I barely ever even thought about them doing anything more than music with each other… though maybe this is due to my long-standing crush on Fontaine Toups.

Speaking of indie rock, Fontaine and Richard told an amusing story about the first time they played in DC, that Jenny Toomey got them to play a show at dc space with a bunch of “indie rock” bands, and that they didn’t know what indie rock was, or that they themselves might be indie rock. They said the indie rock kids terrified them. And that before they knew about indie rock, they thought they were “post-punk.” Ha.

Anyway I am glad that Versus is back in some form. As I get old and cranky, I’m falling into the typical old-person pattern of liking music from when I was 19 way more than I like the music of 19-year-olds today. Whatever.

Opening up for Versus was Soft Power, Mary Timony’s new band. I was pretty interested in seeing them; they’ve played a number of times in town over the past year or so but I had never made it to any of their shows. I was really impressed by the last iteration of the Mary Timony Band (with Devin Ocampo and Chad Molter from Medications/Faraquet) and their album The Shapes We Make. Also I’d seen Mary Timony play several times before and always like her performances.

But I wasn’t totally sold by Soft Power. I liked it, but something seemed off. Partly it was something about the sound and the stage presence: Mary’s vocals didn’t sound right, and she and the other singer (I don’t know his name) were constantly trading guitars and basses. Something just wasn’t quite right. But I’m interested in hearing more: musically it sounded like it had pretty good potential, a continuing progression for an interesting musician. There aren’t a whole lot of woman guitarists/singers like Mary Timony — disappointingly few — and the world definitely needs more girls who can rock out on guitar and who listen to prog. (Again, this was a while back, but Mary asked the crowd something like, “would you rather go on tour with the Scorpions or with Yes?” and despite my definite shout-out in favor of the Scorpions she was like, “I would totally choose Yes.” Man, I love the Scorpions…)

I’ll give Soft Power another chance, too. This was a fun show, gratifyingly filling up the backstage, and a good way to end the year. Though I still wish I had known about that Grant Hart show.