By Jason Shoff
It may be one of the newest venues in town, but in its short life the Rebel Lounge has already evoked strong opinions from those in the local music community. Some love it for its bare-bones atmosphere; others hate it for that exact same reason. And in some ways, who can blame them? Both Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar have raised the bar in recent years, making a name for themselves for their delicious food, beautiful interior décor and welcoming environments. Yet, while you won’t find lavish reading rooms or gourmet hot dogs at Rebel Lounge, they’ve continued to make improvements since its opening, from more tables and chairs to a new sign that offers some pretty funny jokes about its past as the home of the beloved Mason Jar. But its purpose is crystal clear: the Rebel Lounge will always focus on the music, first and foremost. Which is why it was a perfect place for the Sheepdogs to play last night, as they’re a band whose muscular brand of Almost Famous-style ‘70s classic rock is as meat and potatoes as the venue itself. And as someone who was hoping that their new album, Future Nostaligia, would transfer well to the stage, their set absolutely did not disappoint.
The night began with a set from Tempe’s own Huckleberry, an inspired pick for a local opener that was an excellent counter-point to the heavier rock of the other acts. I’ve never been shy about my love for these guys, as they’re the closest band we have in town to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, their brand of laid-back alt country being perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon chilling out on the back porch. Having said that, their newest album Problems is a much more rollicking, upbeat affair, something you’d be more likely to hear at a kegger than a kickback. One of the reasons this album is a great progression for the band, besides the songwriting, is that they’ve spent plenty of time road testing the material during gigs, and the songs continue to sound tighter with each performance. “Trouble is Real,” in particular, was extra funky, and “Hurricane” is a masterful mix of ‘90s indie and country that sounds like the song that Pavement should have released immediately after “Cut Your Hair.” Also I shouldn’t fail to mention that they’ve also recently brought two new members, keyboardist Raph Nzunga and guitarist Andrew Waterhouse, into the fold, and their contributions really flesh out some of the older material, including Fine Highways standout “Miracles.” This really was one of the best performances I’ve seen from them, which makes me hopeful that more people will catch on to one of the scene’s most underrated local bands.
Now I had no idea what to expect from Radio Moscow. To be totally transparent, their name made me think that I’d be listening to a set of Bloc Party-style art punk. But as soon as they started playing I felt like I was being transported to the Fillmore East circa 1968, watching a classic power trio in the vein of Cream and Mountain, with a dash of James Gang mullet rock thrown in for good measure. It was also immediately apparent that guitarist Parker Griggs can shred, and his Hendrix-style wailing left everyone in the room pretty impressed. Yet about halfway through their performance, the songs themselves started to blend together, sounding like slight variations of the same basic tune. And they were all incredibly long, too, with each one seeming to go on (in best Sandlots voice) for-e-ver. That’s not so say every song had the amps going up to 11, though: “250 Miles,” in particular, was a slow-simmering slice of Johnny Winter-esque blues that built to an epic, pummeling climax. But that sense of dynamics wasn’t as prevalent during the rest of their set, which basically sounded like they strung together ten or twelve closing numbers together with hardly a pause in between, which, after awhile, got to be pretty fatiguing on my ears. Again, these guys were far from horrible, and a ton of people were feeding off of the energy Griggs’ playing. But at the same time, one of the reasons Hendrix was so great was because not only was he one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived, but he also wrote amazing songs, too, so that there was substance along with all of the style. In other words, Radio Moscow could really use a “Wind Cries Mary” or “Bold as Love” type of song to add some variety and a necessary breather from the heavy riffage of the rest of their set.
Once their set was over, the band tore down and the Sheepdogs roadies took over. Every band member got a freshly opened can of Miller Lite, their mic stands were filled with brand new guitar picks, and they even got their own freshly washed and folded towel to top it all off; which, I guess, is one of the perks of winning a Rolling Stone cover contest (seriously, can I hire these guys on my days off so I don’t have to lift a finger?). But once they took the stage, they proved why they were winners: the crowd absolutely ate up their entire set, and songs like “One You Belong To” and “Feelin’ Good” are the kind of anthemic rockers that are just meant to be heard live. Their harmony game is also on point, as well, as evidence by the superb “Right On” (seriously, listen to it and try getting it out of your head afterwards). And my prediction came true, as well: Future Nostalgia standout “Bad Lieutenant” became even grittier and nastier, and “I’m Gonna Be Myself” was transformed into a “loud and proud” rallying call for everyone that was there. In fact, the Sheepdogs were rocking so hard that Ewan Currie’s amp blew only four songs in. Thankfully, though, a roadie was there to save the day with a replacement amp, and the rest of the set went off without a hitch. But if their set proved anything, it’s just how consistent and efficient of a band the Sheepdogs have become after years of tour gigging, and the one-two punch of the absolutely epic “Learn and Burn” and “I Don’t Know” left fans (and myself) wanting more, which is really all you can ask for as a fan.