It may be a coincidence that -- only weeks after disclosing that his marriage to and musical partnership with a longtime bandmate had folded -- The Mendoza Line's Tim Bracy decided to open Thursday night's show with "Catch A Collapsing Star." Or it may not.
Historically, The Mendoza Line has touted as many as three singer-songwriters. Smooth-voiced and melodically gifted founding member Peter Hoffman left the fold a couple albums back after contributing his share of great tunes. Singer-songwriter Shannon McArdle joined the band several years after it formed and it was recently disclosed that she and Mr. Bracy have split, a dramatic departure that leaves the future of this pile of rock 'n' roll things called The Mendoza Line in question.
The metaphor of a collapsing star seems apt for pretty much the whole of the existence of the now defiantly traditional band, as tales of intra-band tumult, departures and serial lineup changes have proved to be a constant product of the band just existing. Miraculously, the rag-tag bunch of indie rockers has created a formidable and ample catalog over the last decade. That catalog will expand by one or two more titles in August, depending on how you count, when Bracy & Co. issue the mini-album 30 Year Low and an attendant collection of outtakes and rarities. Not that The Mendoza Line needs a reason, but it's unclear to us why all of a sudden it scheduled four dates to tease a release three months off. But we'll take it, especially given how surprisingly vital the performance was.
While we've seen an uneven Mendoza Line show or two over the years, last night's set was rock solid, as Bracy hollered and drawled his way through nine feverish rockers with the assistance of his able supporting players. In the wake of the news of McArdle's exit from the band, we wondered who would actually be in The Mendoza Line when the act hit town last night. Presumably Mr. Bracy would show, and he obliged. With him were recognizable, amiable and able guitarists Clint Newman and John Troutman, a fellow named Adam Gold on drums and a young woman on keys named Beth Nelson. And of course there was a bassist -- we'll get to him in a moment.
Prior to the show it might have seemed counterintuitive, given the flux of things Mendoza Line, to predict that the set would be the best Mendoza Line show of the handful we've seen. And yet Bracy and his henchpersons make for a no-nonsense and hale live unit. It is just like the Mendoza Line to snatch triumph from the jaws of farce (or vice versa) and turn in a vivid and tight show just when you thought you were going to get a scratchy train wreck on kinescope.
The set opened with a smoldering take on the aforementioned "Catch A Collapsing Star," and then chugged through many highlights of the last half-decade or so of Bracy's tunes. It was a bit jarring to hear Bracy sing parts previously sung by Ms. McArdle, particularly on the new track "Aspect of An Old Maid," which features traded lines of tightly packed lyrics about a relationship that is taking on water, fast. Mr. Newman's articulate guitar playing proved a dynamic foil to Bracy's chord-crushing acoustic guitar strumming, and Mr. Troutman's slippery licks at the pedal steel infused tunes with substantial color. This was particularly the case with the new (we think) number "Now/Never/Later," during which the slow tremolo of Troutman's pedal steel caused the whole of the understated and beautiful song to throb in the basement nightclub [EDIT: Eagle-eared Mendoza Line fan The Good Doctor tells us this track is actually from the sole Slow Dazzle record, The View From The Floor. Our bad]. We were particularly gratified that the band played "Road To Insolvency," a favorite of ours.
And now an extended aside: A big surprise for us came as we approached the band's van behind the club before the set to discover that our old friend Clark Wallace was playing bass on this current slate of dates. This blew our mind, and it remains somewhat blown today. Imagine going out to see one of your favorite bands and discovering that your old friend is playing with the band that night. Wild, right. Mr. Wallace, a multi-instrumentalist and fine songwriter in his own right, acquitted himself very nicely while filling the shoes of longtime Mendoza Line bassist (and mustachioed crowd favorite) Paul Deppler.
The four-date Mendoza Line tour closes out this evening in Providence, Rhode Island. 30 Year Low and its companion piece Final Remarks Of The Legendary Malcontent will be released Aug. 21. We look forward to more live shows then. We shot some pictures last night, and you can have a look at them at this link. And below are MP3s of two cuts the band played last night (alas, there was no "Name Names" or "Rat's Alley"... oh well).
The Mendoza Line -- "Catch A Collapsing Star" -- Full Of Light And Full Of Fire
The Mendoza Line -- "Aspect Of An Old Maid (Alt. Version)" -- 30 Year Low
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Here is the set list as it was to have been performed. We noticed that "Settle Down, Zelda" was moved up in the order, and Clark told us that one of the tracks -- we're not certain which -- was dropped from the set on the fly.
Catch A Collapsing Star
Aspect Of An Old Maid
Love On Parole
I Lost My Taste
It's A Long Line (But It Moves Quickly)
Settle Down, Zelda
Road To Insolvency
Now Or Never Or Later