Monday, March 23, 2009

Concert Review: Travis Morrison Hellfighters, The Bell House, NYC, March 21

Travis Morrison is a huge dork.

You expect the former lead singer of a beloved indie act to be hip, or detached, or at least to sport a haircut with those attributes. You don't expect his on-stage banter to consist of adopting a faux-Italian accent and saying "What a wonderful night, what a wonderful night. That's-a spicy meatball!" And you certainly don't expect him to vocalize the snare rolls to his own jokes.

"A priest, a pervert and a pedophile walk into a bar," Morrison said between songs. "...and then the second guy comes in! Ba-bum-pish!"

Like I said, huge dork.

That dorkiness, of course--or rather that sense of silly fun and lack of self-consciousness--is part of what made the Dismemberment Plan so special, and it's part of what makes his the Travis Morrison Hellfighters' All Y'all a pretty good record and the band's Brooklyn concert a pretty fun gig. It's just that, with a new set of musicians and with Morrison at a different time in his life, it's manifested differently.

The Plan's "Girl O'Clock" featured Morrison's most instantly memorable opening lyric, the stuttered "If I d-d-d-on't have s-s-s-s-sex before the end of the week, I'm going to die!" Now, on a song like "You Make Me Feel Like a Freak," that sense of nervous urgency is replaced by the awkward sexual misadventures of a thirty-something getting picked up at a bar: "Here we are, we're there, yeah, standing at the bar/She says 'Hey, don't you work for NPR?/You're looking the type, and I think you're all right/And you're looking pretty good in those khakis.'" But shouldn't a 20-something and a 30-something sound different when singing about sex? The matter-of-fact, catchy verses about a girl who likes it "right between the toes" explode into a few dissonant jangling chords, a squeaky chorus of "you make me feel like a freak!" The old energy is there, and the song is as diverse as any of his prior bands' tunes: hilarious, energetic, and fun.

Eight of eleven songs from the band's sole album All Y'all were played, along with some new tracks that indicate a line-up that's getting tighter and more comfortable, highlighted by the propulsive bassline of "Henrietta" and the shuffling triplets of "Cruisin' All Night Long," which Morrison said is about "gay cop sex."

And Morrison also remembers that rock music is supposed to be fun and danceable. The band is muscular and funky, and gives Morrison a chance to be a dynamic frontman again in the way his solo album never seemed to. Any live performer with a little spring in his or her step is called "energetic," but with Morrison you get the sense he is enjoying himself so much that he can't help but show it, whether he breaks into a little two-step while dancing, or thrashes on his guitar while looking at his bandmates. Not that he minds enjoying himself by himself: "I know how you feel," he said after someone in the crowd laughed loudly and alone at one of his jokes. "Sometimes I'm the only one in the room who laughs."

Morrison's complete lack of self-consciousness really popped when compared to the audience, which seemed rooted to the floor. There was a five-foot void between the stage and the first row of fans, like some invisible bubble separating the "fun" zone onstage from the "head bobbing only" zone in the crowd. It's been over a decade since Morrison ridiculed stiff-hipped indie kids with the Plan's "Do the Standing Still," but judging by the Brooklyn crowd he's still on the losing end of that battle.

If there was a lack of corresponding energy in the crowd, it's probably because of the same problems that have contributed to the cool reception to Morrison's post-Plan output. By a new band, All Y'all would be a good debut, but the fans of defunct groups with brilliant output aren't interested in just "good." It's a shame, though, that past expectations have burdened a still-vital musician. Here's hoping the next album can get more than 80 or 90 people out to a Brooklyn gig.

I Do
Saturday Night
Crusin' All Night Long*
As We Proceed
Champion Lover* Champion L.V.A.
You Make Me Feel Like a Freak
Money Town*
East Side of the River
Catch Up
I'm Not Supposed to Like You (But)

*New songs, titles uncertain UPDATE: Travis, sweet guy that he is, responded to an e-mail asking about the song titles:

"Yeah it's called Champion L.V.A. really, not Champion Lover, not sure why I said that.
Thanks man!


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