Music » This Little Underground

Merchandise’s David Vassalotti gives the In-Between Series possibly its most gripping performance, Mike Doughty and Wheatus serve up sweet nostalgia

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In desperate need of a laugh out of the current political situation? Just look at the revenge of that hysterically sad-ass musical lineup for Trump's inauguration. I almost feel bad for the event's talent buyer.

THE BEAT

The In-Between Series covers a lot of stylistic ground. But, befitting a gallery serial focused on art music, most of it is experimental and obscure in nature, and indie rock isn't usually on the menu. The latest chapter, however, went there and went big with a rare performance by David Vassalotti (Jan. 16, Gallery at Avalon Island). Though best known as a core member of Merchandise – the breakout Tampa band that's now on legacy tastemaker label 4AD – he's also a noted solo artist in his own right, currently releasing on notable Brooklyn indie imprint Wharf Cat Records. All that considered, he's possibly the most vogue name to be featured in the series so far.

Vassalotti's 2016 album, Broken Rope, on which he played everything himself, was nice with some interesting flourishes. But live, his music takes on a whole new level of mystique. Musically, it's an experimental braid that intertwines noise, blues, rock & roll, indie rock, pop and even some non-Western threads in intriguing and fresh ways. Live, he works in loops and layers, stroking exquisite lines and fields of texture with his guitar. On the mic, he haunts through voice, harmonica and even beatboxing, casting it all in a lo-fi filter like Dirty Beaches working out some heavy personal shit.

As a one-man show, it was exceptional in both its fullness and its originality, defying the usual conventions of the solo format. Though not many to this magnitude, other loop artists have managed to encompass the full compositional range of melody, rhythm, dimension, depth and texture. But few do it with as much uniqueness of vision as Vassalotti. And almost none execute it with this sort of channeled and restless physicality. His technical ingenuity, hounded soul and flair for drama were plied to some seriously moving effect. On the floor of a dark gallery, under the unflinching austerity of a single white studio lamp aimed straight at the audience, it all conspired in a heady, diving, gripping performance that was one of the most evocative episodes of the In-Between Series to date.

Soul Coughing and Wheatus (Jan. 19, the Social) are two notable relics of bygone zeitgeists if ever there were any. But, though he's inextricably tied to yore, Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty is no retro act. He's maintained an enduring solo career and continues to push his music forward with innovation. And actually, thankfully, he's far less goofy on his own. This I can now verify firsthand because his recent performance with a six-piece band (that included openers Wheatus) was generally interesting and engaging, though I wanted to cut myself each time they played one of Soul Coughing's hits like "Super Bon Bon" or "Circles." Doughty's own material and interpretations just felt so much more earnest, personal and, well, soulful.

Wheatus, on the other hand, are kind of the polar opposite of Soul Coughing's arty fusion: a simple little joy. They haven't moved the national needle since the dawn of the millennium, with my last live encounter with them way back in 2005 at the old Will's Pub. But after all that time, Brendan B. Brown's voice – the undeniable pulse of their songs – is still in prime condition, hitting those famous gender-bending highs like a golden-throated castrato.

Wheatus' blend of endearing wit and big, guileless rock melodies isn't just a forthright formula but a combination that clearly stuck. Brown was frequently impressed by the amount and depth of the requests that were shouted at them throughout their set. It shouldn't be a surprise considering his eternally underdog mien, but few bands like this handle their station with such refreshing grace (summed up nicely by the frontman's utterance of "Thanks for remembering us."). Between their sweet blend of humor and humility and the appreciative nostalgia of the crowd, it was an unexpectedly warm engagement of both intimacy and entertainment. A little respect, indeed.

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