Although I’m not much of a horse racing fan, I was more than enthusiastic for this early Saturday evening “Kentucky Derby party” double bill featuring these two great veteran, female-fronted local bands. The scheduled date wasn’t an accident, given that Antietam’s married co-founders Tara Key and Tim Harris are from Louisville, KY, both having played in Babylon Dance Band there from 1978-83. (In fact, this was also Antietam’s 28th anniversary, having formed on Derby day on 5/5/84, when original bassist Wolf Knapp and drummer Mike Weinert joined newly minted transplants Key and Harris in Hoboken, NJ. Yep, the band had two bassists back then!) Key was so “keyed” into Derby day that she even brought out a food spread to the race fans milling about in front of Maxwell’s lone TV set, at the restaurant’s side lounge.
Following I’ll Have Another’s thrilling, come-from-behind victory, and an always-satisfying Maxwell’s supper, we gathered in the venue’s back room for Antietam’s opening set. I’ve seen the trio play twice before, opening for 1960’s psychedelic legend Roky Erickson (at Maxwell’s, April 2007) and 1980’s Boston band Big Dipper’s reunion show (at Brooklyn’s sadly defunct Southpaw, April 2008). But this night’s setlist was mostly unfamiliar to me, as they focused almost entirely on their most recent album, 2011’s Tenth Life, which I have yet to hear.
Still, even on first listen most of the newer tunes, especially “Numbered Days,” “Better Man,” and the war-themed “Basra Bound,” sounded as dynamic and lyrically compelling as anything on their two previous LPs, 2004’s Victory Park and 2008’s double-CD Opus Mixtum. Key’s thoughtful vocals and thick, fuzz-tinged guitar riffs made their presence felt on every tune, each one fuelled by the hard, biting rhythms of bassist Harris and drummer Josh Madell. This current lineup of the band has now been going for over 20 years, and it shows in how comfortable and in sync they are playing together.
I never got to see Wild Carnation, the folk-pop foursome fronted by soothing-voiced Feelies bassist Brenda Sauter, in the 12 years following their beguiling 1994 debut LP Tricycle. But I’ve made up for lost time, having now seen them 14 times since their equally sumptuous second album Superbus finally arrived in 2006. That said, the band didn’t play one note from those two albums tonight, focusing instead on new material, which they promise (fingers crossed!) will be recorded for a third album within the year. Thankfully, the new songs all sounded intriguing and varied, ranging from the driving, hummable “We’ll Monkey with it Later,” to the politically-minded “Why,” to the sunshine-filled ballad “Let’s Pretend it’s Summer.” (Hint: You can hear the first two of those songs on Wild Carnation’s WFMU Live in the Studio session here, along with six other tunes.) As well, an older, non-LP song dating to the 1990’s, called “Blue Skies,” which featured rip-roaring guitar from Sauter’s husband Rich Barnes, and Chris O’Donovan‘s powerhouse drumming, was the night’s hottest number.
Anne Hopkins and Brenda Sauter
The band rounded out their set with a couple of covers: Don & Dewey’s 1959 #2 and The Premiers’ 1964 #19 “Farmer John” (also covered by Neil Young & Crazy Horse on 1990’s Ragged Glory), which was raucously bellowed by O’Donovan, and in keeping with the day’s festivities, a reading of the traditional English folk song “Stewball (Was a Racehorse).” (Having witnessed the band play two covers-filled “Battle of the Bands” shows in 2006, at McLean’s Restaurant & Bar in Ramsey, NJ, and The Wicky Lounge in Suffern, NY, I can hereby attest that they know their music history!)
Sure, it would’ve been nice if the band could’ve thrown us a couple of older bones, like Tricycle’s “Dodger Blue” or Superbus’s “The Road to Bielefeld.” But when you’ve just seen two bands with 48 years (!) of experience between them still writing and playing new music that sounds so fresh and forward-looking, there’s absolutely no reason to complain.