Live Last Night Weekend Report: Urban Verbs and Old Haunts, the anti-Nissan

While J. Freedom spent the weekend with about 50,000 of his closest friends at Nissan "Never Again" Pavilion, I kept it much more low-key. As always. There are probably more people in Kanye's stage crew than were at the pair of shows I attended.

First up was the Urban Verbs Saturday night at Comet Ping Pong. Needless to say, this was a lot better than the last show I saw there. The Verbs were one of D.C.'s great new wave hopes in the late-70s/early-80s but never quite caught on and disbanded after a couple of albums. So what were they doing playing a show in the back room of an upscale pizza joint in 2008? Half the reason was to prepare for a "proper" reunion show May 24 at the 9:30 Club and the other half is that the band members just felt like playing a show again. In this time of inescapable, high-profile reunions that are 99% about getting as much money as possible it was refreshing to see something on a much smaller scale.

Of course, noble intentions would mean nothing if the show were terrible. But it wasn't. It was actually pretty great. For a group that hadn't regularly played together in nearly three decades and was working in a new rhythm section, there were shockingly few missteps to be heard. Singer Roddy Frantz was in fine voice with his highly dramatic vocals, which along with Robin Rose's mind-altering synth work put the group's sound much more on the art-rock side of the new wave dial - think Pere Ubu and Public Image instead of the Cars or Ultravox. (Note to Self: Cross "make Ultravox reference on Post Rock" off Bucket List.) The songs creep up on you more than they immediately grab you, although "Subways" and "The Good Life" showed that the group was plenty capable of writing a catchy chorus. Still, watching the band play it was easy to get the sense of why they became cult favorites in the years after their breakup and also why they were relegated to that status in the first place. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

The monsoon-like conditions outside and the plentiful sports offerings on TV made it very enticing to stay in on Sunday night, but something was pulling me to the Red & the Black to see the Old Haunts. It was that same "if I don't go to this, there will be nobody there" feeling that I sometimes get. And that feeling was accurate, as the band played a great show for about a dozen folks. I thought that drummer Tobi Vail would be able to draw about 20 people on her own - she was in Bikini Kill, is a DIY punk legend and has plenty of connections to D.C. - but apparently the combination of rainy, Sunday and Red & Black kept people away. (My D.C. Show Attendance Calculator determined that if it was a clear night and the show as at the Black Cat there would have been 34 people there.) The small crowd did include a mini-collection of old-school punk heroes, though: Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up), Erin Smith (Bratmobile) and Christina Billotte (Autoclave, Slant 6) were all in the house.

As for the Old Haunts performance, it was gritty garage-punk done to perfection. Singer/guitarist Craig Extine is clearly influenced by Dead Moon's Fred Cole but he also gave off a serious Jack White vibe, both with his piercing wail and the way he manhandled his guitar, which just seemed light and tiny in his hands. As discussed below, the band's sound is as Pacific Northwest as it gets. That means loud, a bit foreboding and no-frills. The trio setup results in a very welcome economy of sound - every bass note, drum fill and riff is crucial. There's no hiding behind any superfluous instruments or computer-aided sounds. But what sets the Old Haunts apart from other bands that can make a nice, Northwestern racket is that the group writes great pop songs. Extine's voice and the band's general raggedness might obscure this fact but tunes like "Volatile" and "Hurricane Eyes" - both standouts from the recent "Poisonous Times" - are as much jangle pop as garage rock. The songwriting doesn't take a backseat to the sound and you end up with a refreshing blast of primal rock-and-roll.

By David Malitz |  May 13, 2008; 4:32 PM ET Live Last Night
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Comments

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Sorry to have missed the Old Haunts. The new album has been a pleasant find. Rainy Sunday nights = bad for shows.

Posted by: ggw | May 13, 2008 6:01 PM

re: "My D.C. Show Attendance Calculator" -- I want to hear more on this contraption.

Posted by: delperro | May 14, 2008 3:30 PM

Living in upper Northwest i think it's great that there is now some 'live' music in the neighborhood. Pizza place or otherwise. Having the Urban Verbs playing there was the perfect topping.

Posted by: John | May 15, 2008 6:50 AM

My Old Haunts show (in L.A.) was great, but I'm jealous that your Old Haunts show had Ian Svenonius in the audience.

Posted by: CB | May 17, 2008 10:20 PM

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