Last Night: Blitzen Trapper and the Moondoggies at the Fillmore
June 30, 2010
Better than: hanging out on some train tracks, drinking whiskey, occasionally shooting a lover or two ...
Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley belongs on center stage -- that much was clear last night when the Portland, Ore.-based band played the last club show of its tour at the Fillmore. Earley is the kind of frontman I'd bring with me to a desert island. He has the kind of musical ability that looks effortless from the crowd, a clear hankering for variety in his musical repertoire, and a knack for storytelling that would surely make island time fly.
Last night, Trapper started songs from its most recent album, Destroyer of the Void, inserting older tunes later in the set. The band members might have benefited from saving their best song from the album Furr, "Black River Killer," until the middle or end of the set instead of blowing their wad right away and playing it first. Not only is the song one worth anticipating, but it also has a uniquely dark, disturbing quality (almost like a Cormac McCarthy novel) that I don't see in most of Trapper's music. The rest of the show never regained the transcendence of the opening number.
The moods within and among songs aren't always so dark. Common themes in Trapper's lyrics run the not-so-original gamut of 10 Commandments-centered moral conundrums, mostly played out in stories that involve drinking whiskey and/or breaking up with/fatally shooting a lover ... usually on some railroad tracks. Still, I'm a sucker for a good story, and when the lights turned low and Earley took to the stage solo with his guitar and harmonica, I caught myself rapt in his yarns with the rest of the dancefloor.
Two of Earley's solo ballads had my ears especially perked: "The Man Who Would Speak True," from the album Destroyer of the Void, which follows the disturbing tale of a down-and-out guy pulled out of his own personal hell by a sweet gal named Grace, who he then proceeds to shoot and kill with a stolen gun when he was drunk one night. D'oh. Then he turns himself in. D'oh, again. To find out what happens next, you're just going to have to listen to the song. "Woman on the Water," from Furr, is a little more metaphor-laden poetry stuff and less straightforward storytelling, but has a strikingly pretty melody.
In addition to pretty melodies, Trapper has the clean, tight sound of a group of talented musicians that have been together for years. In fact, they've been playing together for nearly a decade. That's why it's a bit surprising that their sound also lacks a certain consistency in tone -- although I'd characterize most songs Trapper played last night as folk-rock, some edged more toward dark alt-country, while others verged on pop. The intra-organization of Trapper's songs can be just as confusing, containing the kinds of harmony, melody, and rhythm changes that only a band like Queen can really get away with. (Although Earley also has the kind of voice that actually may well deserve a Freddie Mercury comparison.)
Which brings me back to Earley and his natural habitat onstage. One of the best parts about seeing Trapper live was learning that beneath the shaggy haircut and occasionally melodramatic lyrics is a guy who just plain loves to rock out. And who really needs anything more from a frontman in a rock band?
By the way: Trapper claimed best sappy quote of the evening when guitarist Michael VanPelt looked over lovingly at Earley and said, "Eric, I want to have your harmonica's babies."
Personal Bias: I'm a huge Moondoggies fan, but something was off last night. I've seen them perform a better show elsewhere, so I'm going to blame their less than stellar set on a combination of exhaustion from winding down the tour and not enough volume on the vocal mics.