Monday night’s Modern Hut/Waxahatchee show, originally booked at Allston’s fabled Dreamhaus, was moved last-minute to Charlie’s Kitchen on account of an unfortunate burglary. So off I went to good old Harvard Square to sip Narragansett and take in a night of wildly incongruous but consistently enjoyable music.
Four Point Restraints, three men on guitar/vox, guitar/harmonica, and drums, and one woman on bass, were on when I walked in.
If four friends were sitting around listening to Rain Dogs by Tom Waits and then one of them suddenly looked up and said “Hey you guys, let’s buy some instruments and make music that sounds like this!” and then they worked at it in their garage for a month and came out sounding pretty damn decent, the result would likely be something along the lines of Four Point Restraints, which speaks to the wide diversity of their sound as well as its unity. On the one hand, they were stylistically nearly as all over the map as Tom Waits. On the other hand, every sound they toyed with stank of whiskey and gunsmoke and general fuck-it-all hard living. Some of their songs had a country/rockabilly feel, some had that Ennio Morricone/Dick Dale twang that, the woman on bass told me, has elicited Tarantino-soundtrack comparisons from some listeners, and a few sounded explicitly like the sort of thing that Captain Barbossa and the gang probably start bellowing below-decks on the Black Pearl after the cameras go away—literally, the chorus of their last number had the phrase “WAY HAY HAY” in it over and over. I could groove on it. They gave me a copy of their CD, which (natch) is called Mercy and features a black and white close-up of a revolver on the cover.
The name “Four Point Restraints” refers, incidentally, to something they use in insane asylums when crazy people are freaking out so hard that a straight jacket is not sufficient to restrain them.
Next up was Ruby Ridge, a gothy Cambridge electro-pop duo who sang frenetically over a Korg synth and some samplers. If “synthgaze” is a word, I might be inclined to apply it to a few of their songs. They started off a little shakily, with vocals and notes and other audible song elements nearly crushed under the squall of noise issuing from their speakers, but toward the middle it really came together. Their standout number, “Norquist on the Rack,” a goth-wave banger with a “Head Like A Hole”-ish beat and lyrics that were evidently about doing unspeakable BDSM-type things to notorious Republican reactionary Grover Norquist, saw Cal and John Von B (wife and husband) caressing each other theatrically and moaning “MY HAAAAAAANDS! AAAAAAARE! TIIIIIIIIIIED!” into the same mike while Cal made whooshy noises with a stylus on the screen of a Nintendo DS. It was fun.
At one point John Von B noticed what a good time I was having and invited me to take a few steps forward and stick my face right into their speaker, but I politely declined.
Then came Modern Hut, the nom de guerre of a singer-songwriter named John whose last name I never caught, who has been Waxahatchee’s tourmate for the past week.
At this point, things started to get a little awkward for me vis-a-vis the performers. First of all, I made the embarrassing faux pas of assuming, since Ruby Ridge left the stage with the erroneous announcement that Waxahatchee would be next, that Modern Hut was her roadie/soundtech rather than a performer in his own right. When he started his first song, I thought he was just sound-checking, and when the crowd quieted down I said “No, wait, you guys, this isn’t the show yet,” at which point Modern Hut looked sort of miffed and said “Actually this IS the show,” at which point I realized what was happening and felt like an asshole.
From there it only got worse. See, I was right in the front row, and Modern Hut, like Waxahatchee, writes stripped-down and nakedly emotional songs for lone guitar, songs with crystalline lyrics chock-full of wonderful little truth-zingers. And every time he sang a line that I appreciated, I found myself chuckling a little, not because it was funny, but because it was good, because it was true, because I felt it. It wasn’t a “hahaha” so much as a “huh, yeah” with a nod. To Modern Hut, though, unfortunately, it looked like I thought something was funny, which apparently really fucked with his head, so much so that after a few songs he actually stepped over and asked me what was funny. I asked him if we could please just talk about it later, and he said okay.
Finally, Waxahatchee took the stage, and was just terrific. Waxahatchee, for the uninitiated, is the solo project of Katie Crutchfield, late of now-defunct punk band PS Eliot, whose excellent LP, Sadie, is available for free download and well worth a listen. The name comes from her hometown of Waxahatchee, Alabama. Her debut LP, American Weekend, a collection of songs mostly about frustrated love that she recorded, natch, in her childhood bedroom, came out in January of 2012 on Don Giovanni Records to much loving acclaim, including a favorite-album-of-the-year avowal from the Phoenix’s Liz Pelly, who organized the tour, and lives in Dreamhaus, where the show was originally to take place.
As much as I love her record, I did not fully appreciate the power of Waxahatchee’s music until hearing her live. Listen to American Weekend with insufficient care and you may be tempted to summarily and unjustly peg her as just-another-one-of-those-lo-fi-singer-songwriters. It can take a couple of listens before the full wallop of her songs emerges from the haze of tape hiss. Live, though, all that goes away, and the impact of her music comes at you with razor sharpness and crystal clarity. Her raspy voice has a depth and purity and vividness that her recordings only hint at, and every one of her many lyrical zingers, which sometimes get kind of swallowed up on record, shows up as if outlined in marquee lights. It was a privilege to be there.
But here was the problem: between their sets, Modern Hut must have warned Waxahatchee that some asshole in the front row was snickering at inexplicable moments and fucking with performers’ heads, because when she got on stage the first thing she did was turn to me and basically tell me I’d better not try any funny business—kind of in jest, but also kind of not.
For a little while, everything was okay. But inevitably, along came one of my many favorite Waxahatchee lines—it might have been the one about how she doesn’t care if she’s too young to be unhappy, or the one in “Bathtub” about how she tells you not to love her but still kisses you when she wants to, or the one in “Grass Stain” about how she’ll fish for compliments and drink until she’s happy and she’ll wonder what you’re doing but won’t call. I don’t remember, but whichever one it was, it affected me such that I let out a little snort of approval, at which Waxahatchee looked straight at me and told me in no uncertain terms to get out of the front row. I relented, especially after a kind, fellow audience-member named Mick offered to buy me a drink if I gave poor Waxahatchee some space.
We sat down at the bar and he ordered me a Narragansett and told me that I shouldn’t feel bad, that there’s nothing wrong with reacting to music that you love however you react to it, but that it can just be kind of distracting for the performer, especially in a tiny space like Charlie’s Kitchen where there’s hardly a stage to speak of and the crowd is right there in front of you. I still felt like an asshole. After Waxahatchee’s set, the end of which I enjoyed safely from the back, I wanted to go up to her and apologize, but Mick wisely suggested that I just write her a note and beat it.
So here it is: Waxahatchee, Katie, pal, if you’re reading this, please accept my sincerest of apologies for fucking with your shit the other night. The show was lovely, your music is wonderful, and the last thing I wanted to do was make what was surely already a horribly stressful day any more stressful for you. Next time you’re in town, I swear on all things sacred that I will be there, in the fifth or sixth row and quiet as the grave. We cool?
– Nick Cox