Hauntology is a term current in literary and other criticism that (if I have this right) refers to a sense of being infused or inhabited by the past; or to music that references a sound or style from another time, playing on the memories and resonances it evokes, especially when the moment referenced is something long-gone and nearly forgotten. I thought about it a lot during this show.
I’d been excited about this solo project of Nick 13′s since I first heard of it, because Tiger Army, of which he’s the prime mover and crystalline voice, has never been your typical psychobilly band. While decidedly capable of kicking tail and rocking out, they’re dreamy, spooky and cerebral, pursuing the mysteries of the beyond and the road to dark romance instead of the ghoul girls at the hop, and they’re as well-known for their purist clarity as their iconoclasm (I doubt you can name me many other bands who’ve covered both Eddie Cochran and Morrissey). So when I learned that Nick had fulfilled his dream of recording a roots-country album with Nashville musicians, I had no doubt it would soar; which is why I was with Liz at the Black Cat in DC for this stop on his debut solo tour.
But I’m ahead of myself here, because I don’t want to overlook the opening band, Billy Woodward and the Senders. Ladies and gentlemen, this is one hot little combo, and I commend them to you wholeheartedly. Impeccably executed R&B/rock played with snap and polish, stage presence, and a huge sense of fun. It’s great to hear someone dust off 1960′s songs by the bands people don’t remember, and play them with the same joy and excitement they had then. I was already thinking that their sound was more British Invasion than rockabilly when they kicked into “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)”, and topped it with a sparkling cover of “Rock’n'Soul”, a song I hadn’t heard in decades (and still can’t remember who I knew it by, but I loved it then too). Lead singer Billy sounds as sweet as an Everly Brother but pours out sweaty energy, Mike Centrella spins and tangos with his double bass, and the set is crazy fun and super tight at once. I’d go see these guys again anytime.
Setup commences: Nick’s exacting care of his voice is often remarked upon, and now the roadie who’s bringing water bottles and clean towels carefully sets a cup of hot tea down by the bass drum. The lead-in music is an inspired choice: Johnny Cash’s recording of Glenn Danzig’s “Thirteen”. As the Man in Black’s cavernous rumble fades out, the members of Nick’s band – old-school C&W guys in rose-embroidered shirts and string ties – walk out one by one, and kick it off: then 13 himself steps out to a wave of cheers. He’s wearing a tailored dark suit, a scarf and black snakeskin boots; he smiles, and launches straight into “Restless Moon”.
And here’s where hauntology gets its ghostly grip. It’s a classy set – contained, polished, pretty as a dream – and it doesn’t just respect the past, it yearns for it like a heartbroken lover. It’s as though 13 hopes by his own vision and a wealth of meticulous detail to erase your knowledge of crass show-biz Nashville, to recreate the old world of country music in all its pure and lonesome darkness. (At one point he refers to “the country music of the 40′s, 50′s and 60′s, not what they call country music nowadays,” and I know you can hear the icicles dripping off that last phrase.) The songs are mostly new ones, but you can tell just from the titles what spirit they’re meant to speak: “”Nashville Winter”, “Carry My Body Down”, “All Alone”. Footnoted at every turn (one song was “inspired by the Bakersfield Sound”; the 1928 “Blue Yodel #4-California Blues” is credited to “the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers”), it’s part homage, part history lesson, all loving determination and steel control. The little world in these songs is like the adamant pool of light in a George Ault painting, holding off corrupting force by sheer clarity of focus. Wistful, pretty, silky smooth; but fierce.
There are a couple of retooled Tiger Army songs in the set as well, and one of them, “In the Orchard”, is dedicated with a big smile to “Elizabeth, Jennifer, and all the Tiger Army fans who’ve seen us perform from coast to coast”. =) Another is the encore, “Outlaw Heart”, from way back on TA’s first album, and it seems right at home here. == It might seem like a major gamble for a rock’n'roll guy to set his band aside and seek out his roots, but judging from the turnout, the warm reception, and the music, the dice have rolled Nick 13′s way.