STANDS FOR GENIUS Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey

The two dB’s mainmen, touring
behind their new collaborative effort, pull it off – and then some.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

So this is what it’s actually like on the other side of the
looking glass. I’m standing in the bar of one North Carolina’s most revered
rock clubs, hoisting a couple with… my
rising third grader’s art teacher
?!? To borrow a somewhat condescending
epithet being used of late to describe the kind of music that certain
soft-treading music magazines (not naming names) cover, have I stepped into
that alternate universe known as “dad rock”? Arggghh… WWJTD? What Would Jeff
Tweedy Do?

 

I mean, I’m with Blurt mag, for chrissakes; I am assured by all of my fellow staffers that we are on the fucking cutting edge,
maaan. Indie-rock, underground shit, slutty punk chicks, cult legends. What the
hell is “dad rock,” anyway?

 

Not so fast. I am a
dad, after all, and I have it on good authority that most of the gentlemen in
the headlining band tonight are dads, too. So if I, a dad, have come to rock,
and if those guys, dads, are up there rocking, then it must be “dad rock,”
right?

 

But it’s a weird feeling, confronting tentative evidence
that the “dad rock” term just might have become operative in my own little
universe while I was otherwise occupied keeping up appearances. The aging process
is subtle and sneaky, and in my mind at least I’ve been stiff-arming it by
frequenting noisy rock clubs where I’m elbow-to-elbow with tattooed/pierced
punks, hirsuter-than-hirsute stoners and gibbering/guzzling record obsessives,
not elementary school teachers charged with dropping literal science into my
kid’s sieve-like brain. For that matter, the aforementioned art teacher- a
wonderful chap, incidentally, a gifted instructor much loved at the  school – is a grandfather, although I’m pretty sure he’s no older than me (the
wife and I got started late). Still… he’s here to rock himself, and since we’ve
talked music before, I can state for the record that his tastes are pretty
impeccable. It doesn’t hurt his case to learn that he’s been a fan of the headliners’
music for some time now, either. (The dude is very cool, trust me.)

 

Plus, the moment the band takes the stage of Asheville, NC’s
Grey Eagle (June 10, 2009, if you’re wondering) and strikes up the impossibly
sunny, upbeat title track from their new album, the “D” word vanishes from my
mind and I settle back for 90 minutes of pure, un-adult-erated sonic bliss that simultaneously takes me back to my
early ‘80s salad days as a record collector and reinforces my current career
path as a music journalist.

 

***

 

I’m getting ahead of things. First, there’s opening act
Jeffrey Dean Foster, who not so coincidentally has also been part of my
personal soundtrack for a couple of decades. Foster used to be in one of the
Tarheel State’s Great Pop Hopes, the Right Profile, a part-jangly, part-twangy
quartet – future Superchunk member Jon Wurster held down the drum kit,
incidentally- that mustered several wonderful Mitch Easter/Don Dixon-produced recordings
before imploding at the tail end of the ‘80s at the indifferent hands of Arista
Records. Foster subsequently fronted the Carneys, followed by the Pinetops,
before emerging as a full-fledged solo artist. Currently based in Winston-Salem, his 2005
album Million Star Hotel remains one
of this decade’s finest explorations of the pop idiom – yours truly, writing
for Harp, citedhis classic rock-leaning arrangement skills and his instinct for
rescuing poetic truths from life’s crush,” and to paraphrase one-time
Presidential candidate Barack Obama, I still approve that message.

 

Tonight Foster’s joined by Sara Bell (of Durham’s great
Regina Hexaphone, the multiinstrumentalist’s CV also includes Dish, Shark
Quest, Angels of Epistemology), who lends her piano, mandolin, acoustic guitar
and vocal skills to the mix while looking positively elegant in her red dress
and long dark hair. The duo opens with one of the standout tracks from Million Star Hotel, “Lily of the
Highway,” a yearning slice of strum ‘n’ hum that I’m not embarrassed to admit
broke my heart a few years ago with its meditation upon loving, leaving and
letting go. “She was the lily of the highway,” sings Foster, in his wistful
upper tenor, as Bell
softly caresses the melody line with her keyboard, “and she’s free.” It breaks
my heart all over again.

 

Together, Foster and Bell create gentle hypnosis, from the
reflective, Springsteenian “Corner of My Eye” (Bell adding lilting vocal
harmony) and the mandolin/guitar powered “Break Her Heart” (alternately
intense, cautionary, defiant and sorrowful, it’s a portrait of lost love before
the fact), to an airy, Pettyish version of the Pinetops’ country-pop gem “So
Lonesome I Could Fly” and an out-of-the-blue cover of the Ramones’ “Sheena Is A
Punk Rocker” – here, recast for Bell’s mandolin and Foster’s acoustic guitar
and revved down more than a few notches from the original, it’s now a Laurel
Canyon, and not a Bowery, anthem. An unexpectedly tender moment also arrives
when Foster, at the piano, segues softly from one of his song into the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be
There,” and it’s neither maudlin nor heavy-handed, merely “just right.”

 

Foster’s songs have an elemental quality, the same quality
that informs the Toms, the Bruces and other great American tunesmiths of our
(my) generation. They’re innately melodic, with handshake-familiar changes –
lots of well-placed minor chords – that never wear out their welcome, plus
evocative lyrics that are frequently narrative but with just the right degree
of unspecificity to keep them universal, conveying adolescence, maturity,
serendipity and reflection all at once. Go find him on the web; you won’t be
disappointed.

 

***

 

I buttonhole Peter Holsapple briefly before he’s to perform
and hand him a couple of issues of the new Blurt;
he and musical partner Chris Stamey are profiled in it. Later, after the show,
I’ll get the two musicians to sign a CD for me (to my son; looks like we’re in
dad-rock territory again). Although I don’t necessarily need a prop or an
excuse to approach Peter, as we’ve known each other since the mid/late ‘70s
when we both lived in Chapel Hill, prior to him getting the call from Stamey,
who’d moved north to NYC after graduating from the University of North
Carolina, to join the recently-kickstarted dB’s. At this point in time most of
you readers know the dB’s story so I won’t recount it here, and you can also
find out more about the current Holsapple-Stamey summit by sniffing around on
the web (or, for that matter, simply picking up a copy of Blurt). I’ll just add that it’s always great to run into Peter, and
Chris too, as we all have overlapping, shared histories – which is something I
will explain to my son tomorrow morning when I present him with the autographed
CD.

 

You know that feeling you get when you’re at a party or
visiting a friend and a song comes on the stereo that’s not only an old
favorite of yours but one obviously loved by the other people in the room?
Conversation doesn’t necessarily stop, but small smiles are exchanged, maybe
followed by nods of acknowledgment, toes begin softly tapping in time to the
music, and a few hips sway unconsciously, too. That’s what it’s like watching
Holsapple and Stamey at the Grey Eagle tonight. The turnout is, surprisingly,
somewhat slim, but in my book, 100% audience enthusiasm will trump 50% paying
attention, 50% yakking away at the bar any time, and every single person in
attendance is clearly here to see the band, ensuring that each tune, whether
taken from the recently-released hERE aND
nOW
(Bar/None) or plucked from deep within the dB’s archives, gets warmly
received. With a crack band – Gary Greene, from Cravin’ Melon, on drums; Jeff
Crawford, Roman Candle/Tomahawks, on upright bass; producer/engineer
extraordinaire Wes Lachot on keyboards – intuitively backing the duo up, it’s
one of the more seamlessly-flowing evenings of music in recent memory.

 

Things kick off with title track “Here and Now,” a soaring,
almost jangly/powerpoppish number penned by Holsapple that kind of serves (in
the tradition of Sgt. Pepper’s titular cut) as their we’re-gonna-play-these-songs-hope-you-enjoy-the-show
salutation. What’s interesting is how the two singers orient themselves: on
opposite sides of a single condenser microphone set with a broad directional pattern,
Everly Brothers-style, whereby the setup allows them plenty of physical space –
they can each stand more than a foot away from the mic (no worries about
guitar-strummin’ arms getting in each other’s way) – and maintain direct eye
contact as well. This adds an unexpected element of intimacy to their vocals,
and the mic’s aural characteristics also make those harmonies uncommonly warm
and moist, like a coalescing entity with a separate life of its own. They won’t
sing exclusively this way throughout the show, as each has his own separate
mic, but when they do, it’s magic.

 

A couple more hERE aND
nOW
songs follow, Stamey’s “Santa
Monica” (a romantic, David Crosbyesque dialogue
highlighted by a concise-yet-intense guitar solo from Stamey) and Holsapple’s
jauntily whimsical ode to the a.m. pleasures of guzzling coffee and letting the
significant other sleep in, “Early in the Morning.” Then it’s time to dip back
to the pair’s dB’s days: “Nothing Is Wrong,” from 1982’s Repercussion, is done Everlys-mic style, and with Lachot’s spectral
keys, Crawford’s empathetic basslines and Greene’s delicate percussion fills,
plus Stamey on subdued electric guitar and Holsapple contributing a solo on his
acoustic, those soaring Holsapple-Stamey harmonies take on an almost choirlike
feel. Knowing that these guys are longtime Big Star acolytes (and Chris Bell
fans in particular), I can’t help but thinking that if the original Big Star
lineup had somehow lasted to the present day, this might be what they’d sound
like.

 

Hold that thought. A few tunes later, Stamey steps to his mic to make an introduction, saying,
“Most of these songs we’ve written, but every night we try to remember where we
came from. This one’s by the late great Chris Bell.” And suddenly the room is
aglow with Bell’s
post-Big Star solo gem, “I Am the Cosmos,” a significant totem for both men,
and particularly for Stamey, as he originally released the “Cosmos” 45 on his
own indie label Car in the late ‘70s. This
is holy music
, I think to myself, closing my eyes and allowing Lachot’s
droning, pulsing keys, the reassuring hum of the acoustic guitars and those
H&S harmonies wash over me.

 

What else? Well, they serve up the bulk of the new album,
with highlights including: “Widescreen World,” crowd-around-the-mic, uptempo
fun which somehow gets me thinking about what a shotgun wedding between the
Everlys and Katrina & the Waves might sound like (“Wake Up Little Sunshine”?
“Walking on Susie”?); “Broken Record,” lyrically wistful and baroque in feel
thanks to Crawford’s bowed bass;  and “My
Friend the Sun,” the old ‘70s tune by UK art-rockers Family that serves as hERE aND nOW‘s opening track, here
rousing and celebratory, with Holsapple playing an odd-looking axe fashioned
from an oversized cigar box – it sounds like a cross between a mandolin and a
ukulele, Holsapple additionally submitting some slide riffs. (Earlier today the
song was the standout performance when the duo did a live acoustic radio
session at nearby station WNCW-FM.)

 

They don’t allow their 1991 Mavericks collaboration to go undocumented, either, with both that
album’s brilliant, soaring, chugging, heart-tugging “Angels” (a joint
composition, incidentally) and Holsapple’s subtly complex, elegiac “She Was the
One” getting note-perfect renderings. For the encore – by which point a blind
man would be hard-pressed to accurately guess how big the audience is, given
the roar of approval the band is getting – it’s “Song For Johnny Cash,” from hERE aND nOW, bluesy and folky but with
a piercing, angular Stamey guitar solo that has Jeff Foster leaning over and
saying into my ear, awestruck, “He is the most in the moment guitar player I’ve ever seen.” That’s followed by… drum
roll please… “Black and White”…

 

One of the first songs Holsapple wrote for the dB’s after
joining the band (it was their initial 45 waxing as a quartet and also wound up
being the lead-off track on their ’81 full-length debut, Stands for deciBels), “Black and White,” here, is not the power-pop
raveup of nearly three decades’ prior. Jesus, has it been that long since we
dB’s fans spun the 45, and the album, over and over, pogoing around the room at
new wave house parties? The passage of time and the deep-sinking of fond
memories, combined with the ability of a songwriter to rearrange what’s already
a carved-in-stone classic song, has for tonight at least given us a new pop gem carrying a unique fresh heft.
The reworked/remodeled “Black and White” is now a less-frantic (though equally
insistent) rhythmic and chordal throb, more reliable and sturdy a composition
in that sense, although it’s not so much due to Holsapple and Stamey’s skidding
down and softening its thwack for
their more acoustic-tenored band structure. Rather, it’s a pair of guys who,
with supreme confidence, know – just as Dylan, with his myriad reworkings of
his own oeuvre, knows – that the tune’s proven longevity won’t allow it to fail
no matter what the context.

 

And sure enough, in this easy-going, more folk-rocky and
not-so-power-poppy take, there’s an irresistible, delicious tension wrought
between the familiar and the new. Over the years, from the initial early ‘80s
run of the original dB’s lineup through Holsapple and Stamey’s periodic
reconnections (did I mention there’s a new dB’s studio album in the works?),
the pair is bound to have pulled out “Black and White” on plenty of occasions.
It’s obvious they still get juiced doing so.

 

As the song thrums its way to a satisfying close, I realize
I’m grinning stupidly, ear-to-ear. Dad
rock
? Never crossed my mind. I feel like a teenager again.

 

***

 

Rewinding all the way back to that opening number, upon
reflection I view “Here and Now” as also a metaphorical manifesto for Peter and
Chris’ long collaborative journey, one which stretches all the way back to
junior high garage bands while growing up together in Winston-Salem. Sang
Holsapple at the start of the concert, “Right here and now, we’ll pull it off
somehow, ‘cos we know how you can
hear it here and now.”

 

Yeah, we can hear it. And I’ll go out on a limb and state
for the record that the tune’s literal lyric
message – “if someone leaves this place tonight, and along the way home, sings
a song, when they were here, they
sang along with us” – was the operative
one for the evening as well. I could swear I heard some folks humming happily
to themselves as they were leaving the Grey Eagle…

 

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