Stringbuilder – Boston – The Middle East Upstairs, MA – 2003-01-22

Where: Boston – The Middle East Upstairs, MA.

When: 2003-01-22

On the coldest night that anyone living in Massachusetts can remember (in the wind, it was actually 40 below zero…seriously), the upstairs of the Middle East is packed to the gills. The cause for celebration is the release of Defrocked and Kicking the Habit (Handsome Records), the new disc from Boston’s Soltero. Summing things up during their set, Soltero frontman Tim Howard says, “Outside is why I hate Boston. Inside is why I love it.” Amen.

Stringbuilder’s Joel Thibodeau opens the night, and the club is almost more than half-full by the time he begins. His voice is like some kind of beautiful, eerie cross between Neal Young and Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays; eerie only because I couldn’t necessarily have imagined such a creation, but there it is, right in front of me, singing songs rooted in a traditional American bloodline. Haunting if you’re familiar with it, the voice can drive you to distraction if you’re not. Either way it will draw you in and bring you back. He keeps the majority of the crowd in rapt attention with just himself and a sole accompanist on guitar. Towards the close of his set, the club’s fire alarm system goes off, filling the club in what my feeble mind thinks are pre-planned strobes. As I try to wrap my head around the situation, the band, now filled out with an accordion player and a percussionist, float in and out of playing in time with the fire alarm siren. It’s entrancing, engaging, enchanting, and no one seems in the least bit concerned that there might actually be a fire.

Soltero takes the stage close to midnight, closing out the show that also included Boston’s Choo Choo la Rouge and Providence’s Eyesores. Soltero’s overall sound is like an indie-rock stew; “There’s Spoon,” says I, “Pavement and Clem Snide,” says Vincenzo, “That’s a bit of Beck,” says Shannon. All the big boys are present, but the songwriting pedigree doesn’t stop there and it gives them an air of credibility and sturdiness. These guys have songs.

The crowd sings along when they knew the words and band grins like four proud papas. The whole atmosphere lends the songs an almost anthematic air, and the band’s stage presence is so damn affable (Howard is a dead-on ringer for my best friend Ryan from Baltimore so he had me at hello) that it’s tough not to get caught up. Drummer Casey Keenan pushes everyone ahead and is amazingly spot-on as he pulls off his broken-up Keith Moon licks remarkably well. Everyone is sufficiently entertained, except the guy in the suit in front of me who is perhaps overplaying his enthusiasm a bit. They manage to mix the moods up without slowing down the show and display a bit of the intangible thing that bands get when they’re figuring out to how pace sets and how to win over an audience. For tonight, they didn’t have much convincing to do as the crowd is stacked solidly behind them. It’s a damn good sight to see. I walk out with a Soltero disc and plans to see Stringbuilder when they’re around next. Well done.