Ezra Furman at the Earl, Atlanta, GA, August 22, 2012. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
“It’s not cool to play rock and roll anymore. It’s just—it’s not cool to play in a blistering rock band,” Ezra Furman told the crowd at the Earl on Wednesday night, through a huge grin before promptly proving how untrue that statement really is. As he and his newly formed band of miscreants ripped through a, well, blistering version of “Bloodsucking Whore,” a rowdy cut from last year’s Mysterious Power, many adjectives were flying through my head, and uncool was not one of them. Instead of feeling like a feeble grasp at a dying art, the night felt more like a punch to the gut of rock and roll—a revitalization and justification for the music. If going to rock and roll shows on a Wednesday night is uncool, well then color me uncool.
The night began mildly enough, with the drunken troubadour John Vournakis—a local of Atlanta—spinning tales of decrepit life in the heart of Americana. As we walked into the Earl, he was delicately picking his way through “The Gold Club,” a heartbreaking, yet cleverly humorous ode to a stripper whose heart he seemingly had wanted to save. The stripped-down sound of his music, just his voice ringing clear over the top of an acoustic guitar, really showcased his elegant lyricism and adept wordplay. It seemed that the hometown folk singer had done a great job at promoting his opening slot for Ezra Furman that night; as soon as one of his haunting songs ended, the thinly populated venue erupted in applause. Not to say he didn’t deserve it—the clear messages of his southern back-alley gospel and the emotion with which he delivered them was easy to immediately appreciate.
Another local band, Supervisor Of The Loveless Average was the bridge between Vournakis’ folky impressions and Ezra Furman’s whiskey-fueled rock and roll. I suppose Supervisor Of The Loveless Average—a band whom singer John McNicholas jokingly claimed no one has ever made it all the way through their website address—was somewhere in between the two styles. The Atlanta-based trio delivered a passionate set of songs, including most of their debut EP, Songs About Cities, owing much to the nineties alternative rock of the likes of Pavement and Superchunk—jaunty, playful lyrics coated in off-kilter melodies. Their set was one of those occasions where the crowd entered quite timidly, unsure of what to expect, but by the end, we were all, at the very least, tapping a toe or two. One of the highlights of the set was the opening track off the EP, “Baltimore Bound.” Featuring a big, hook-heavy chorus, and even a geography schooling of an audience member, Supervisor Of The Loveless Average brought many of us out of our shells with the upbeat bombast of “Baltimore Bound.” They are one of those cases of a band that clearly keeps their influences close, but expounds upon them in a way that it feels wholly fresh.
Before Ezra Furman ripped into “Dr. Jeckyll And Mr. Hyde,” the opening track of his latest offering, to open the set, he began his set with a disclaimer of sorts. He told the crowd that after a few successful shows with his new band, he was feeling overconfident, so he had been having a few drinks before the shows lately. As the words, “So we’ll see how that goes,” faded away into the opening chords of the track, it became immediately clear that it was going to go very well. A properly amped-up version of The Year Of No Returning standout, “Dr. Jeckyll And Mr. Hyde” did a fantastic job at representing the loose, natural way that words flow out of Furman, and likewise the loose, natural way that rock and roll flows out of his band with abandon. Furman is a master of tragicomic imagery, exhibiting darkness in his life with the playful tone of someone who has no stake in it. As the band jangled through the country-tinged song, Furman gleefully, yet somewhat angrily singing lines like, “In my little black apartment / I found love’s secret compartment / And now I keep my things inside / That’s my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He immediately calls attention to the juxtaposition of flippancy and torture within his music.
The band itself also displayed its own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; while they had complete control over the songs they played, wielding the cowboy-lost-in-the-middle-of-Chicago riffs with precision, there was a free-spirited looseness to them as well. The entire set felt like it could come apart at the seams at any time, but they kept everything just reined in enough to feel cohesive. Furman playfully talked with the crowd between every song, trying to extract a little more life out of the mid-workweek dredges. Over the course of the set, he did just that. He introduced a song as a “little folk song, from the Motwon label,” and proceeded to lead his band through a punk-rock ode to R&B, a raucous cover of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” It was quite the amalgamation of styles; not only did his raw, smoke-coated voice go perfectly with typically crystal-clear melody, dance moves throughout the crowd that were more properly placed around the time when “Please Mr. Postman” was originally a hit, went perfectly with the garage-rock flavor that Furman brought to the song. It was a perfect example of how a cover should be played; close enough to the original that the spirit contained in the song still permeates, but different enough that the spirit of the band is what shines most. The band played another cover later in the evening, a rousing rendition of Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” that captured that exact same dynamic.
What really shone throughout Furman’s set was his songwriting prowess. As the band wound its way through most of The Year Of No Returning, the varied styles ranging from folk balladry to wild-west swing, were on stunning display. The fact that he can write such different songs, stylistically, and weave his fantastic lyrics around catchy melodies is quite amazing. On “Queen Of Hearts,” a slow-moving country love song, Furman’s lyrical wizardry completely captivated the attentive crowd. His command for his word choices is something to behold; as he sang, “And I watch you with your purse from the adjacent coffee table / From the Starbucks they built inside my heart,” I didn’t know whether to laugh at the clever lyric or to say “Wow.” I might have done both, in fact.
Furman closed the set with a rock and roll freakout of epic proportions—as he and his band (which he had dubbed The Fuck-Ups at some point during the show) played “We Should Fight,” off of his 2008 record, Inside The Human Body, they finally allowed those seams to break. They went out in a glorious blaze; Furman was practically crawling around on stage as he and guitarist Jorgen Jorgenson rifled through furious riffs. It was refreshing to see the set unravel in a true rock and roll fashion; all of the tension built up prior to the aptly titled “We Should Fight” finally coming to fruition, with Furman and his band of fuck-ups drunkenly stumbling off into the night. As if I ever had any doubt, it became fully clear that no, rock and roll is not dead, and yes, it is still cool to go to a rock show on a Wednesday night.