Number 4 on the year and we’re still not out of January – so much for my easing back on gigs this year! This one was also a very late shout – as late as Thursday, in fact, when I finally got around to checking out an e-mail recommendation from “Beef” for a gig he was going to anyway; he suggested Brooklyn native Kevin Devine might be right in my wheelhouse, and boy, he was spot-on – a couple of YouTube videos revealed some exciting and upbeat punchy powerpop/ US post-grunge college rock, with sneaky underhand slivers and nuances of many familiar sounds, some clearly identifiable (Death Cab! Nada Surf!), some more intangible. Either way, a tantalising prospect, so tix were duly booked, and Mr. Devine’s current, 9th (!!!) album quickly procured and placed on heavy rotation all through Friday. How have I missed this guy??
Beef picked me up, with Dean already riding shotgun, and we caught up on a swift and soggy run down to the Thekla, hitting the venue for doors at 7.30 and joining an impressive early Sunday crowd for opener The Lion And The Wolf, 10 minutes early at 10 to 8.A beardy soloist called Tom with a fragile, fractured and occasionally eerie vocal delivery, his material was fittingly bleak, bare and confessional, juxtaposed with some humorous between- and in-song banter (calling for a moshpit (!) and quipping, “that’s enough of the happy ones!” after “My Father’s Eyes”, a suitably sombre piece commemorating his father’s recovery from a heart attack). Another one, “Symptoms”, about an Alzheimer’s victim being cared for by their partner, understandably hit close to home, and a final number about a friend’s mother’s recovery from illness, was a suitably melancholy end to an impressive – if not particularly cheerful! – set.
A chat with Tom at the merch stand preceded Laura Stevenson’s set – Beef’s real motivation for tonight, she generated a folkier vibe, with a more laid back, laconic and often conversational or stream-of-consciousness delivery in her nuanced, almost angelically-pure voice, recalling for me Suzanne Vega, or Tanya Donelly’s quieter moments. Some Tanya-esque lyrical imagery as well (one such lyric being “I have dreams about bears with the reddest mouths…”, or pretty much the whole of “Fine Print”, referencing a “monster in my clothes”). I also particularly enjoyed the one about, “a lady – she used to be my stepmom but now she’s a lady again…”, and some vocal gymnastics closed out a charming and slightly off-the-wall set.
By now we’d hit the front, stage left, running into former White Lilac inspiration Faye Rogers and her new beau Mike, chatting before Kevin Devine’s arrival in front of this by-now packed and reverential crowd, spot on at 9.30. A solo opener featuring a very apposite and topical couplet, “there’s a fight to be won… it’s begun” was impressively prescient, and the slight, hirsute Kevin was then joined by The Goddamn Band, a tight bassist/ drummer combo who proceeded to back him up perfectly throughout with a rock-solid base for his thrilling powerpop/ college rock collision. “See Me” was a racy early highlight, recalling “Phaseshifter”-era Redd Kross, and the Ben Kweller-alike “Instigator” was a chunky powerpop trampoline ride, Kevin and his bassist conspiring to knock the keyboard off its’ stand with their kinetic stage antics. “Magnet” and a galloping “No Why” had me singing along to their instantly memorable hooks, whereas the more chugalong oldie “No Time Flat” featured a more political protest message. In fact, Kevin’s evident and righteous disgust with the new US administration was evident throughout, bubbling to the surface on the likes of a venomous and impassioned “Both Ways” (dedicated to, “the American president and any other motherfucker who wants to stand it the way of people”), a subsequent anti-Trump diatribe, and some pointed social commentary during a mid-set solo interlude. Preaching to the converted, maybe, but things need to be said, and Kevin Devine clearly has the wit and wherewithal to articulate what so many believe. Rock’n’roll is fighting back!
Back to the rock, then, as “I Can’t Be With Anyone” took flight with a Nirvana-esque roar after an initial understated groove; “Daydrunk”, preceded by a funny story of an onstage collapse (!) was tremendous, a soaring singalong and my overall set highlight; and “No History” slunk in with a Nada Surf “Killians Red” circular riff and a plaintive, Death Cab-alike vocal, before roaring into strident choral life. Another final solo vignette closed out a 1 hour 30+ set with a touching, singalong “I Was Alive Back Then”, Kevin leaving to a huge ovation with a positive message, “we’ll be OK”. A quite excellent set, during which I also saw a lot of parallels with Frank Turner, with Kevin also seemingly holding up a mirror to the horrors of this scary, fucked up world, but also preaching the politics of self-empowerment and hope in the process.
No set-list for me – only one and it was laminated to last the whole tour! I got a pic anyway, but I guess my No. 700 will have to wait... then a quick chat with Kevin afterwards, chatting about Nada Surf (whom he’d namechecked during the encore) and the parallels between his and their music, particularly in terms of easy melody, warmth and humanity, before bidding farewell and hitting the road for a late arrival home. I’ve clearly got some homework to do on the man, but this is a task I’ll certainly relish, as this very late gig shout has yielded a quite significant musical discovery in Kevin Devine!