Chris Stamey w/ Robert McCreedy and Robert Skoro (Saturday, April 23rd, 2005, Lee’s Liquor Lounge, Minneapolis)
By David de Young
At Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis on Saturday night, Robert Skoro and Robert McCreedy provided complementary opening sets that helped set the stage for the evening’s headliner, Chris Stamey. Stamey, one time member of the Sneakers and the dbs has become just as well known over the years as a producer, working with and recording Whiskeytown, Tift Merrit, Matthew Sweet and many others at Modern Recording in Chapel Hill, North Carolina..
Holding down the first spot on the bill was the Twin Cities’ own Robert Skoro. Skoro, who was a bit under the weather, said he’d spent the day on the couch watching Star Wars and eating pancakes, which he called “the fuel of rock and roll.” (I’m not sure if by "fuel" he meant pancakes, or watching Star Wars, as either one seemed possible.) Tonight Skoro played solo, running through some of his best known material including “2318,” a song he announced is on his first Yep Roc Records release, an EP currently available only at shows and from the Yep Roc website. Skoro’s debut full-length for Yep Roc, That These Things Could Be Ours, is due out this fall.
The Chris Stamey Experience
Seeing as I’ve counted myself a Chris Stamey fan for more than 20 years, it’s hard to believe this was my first time seeing him live. I saw the dbs when they played Grinnell College in 1984, but by that time Stamey had already left the band to begin a solo career. I recall that following the show in ‘84 that db Peter Holsapple declined an interview with me, but did accompany me to the radio station (KDIC) where he picked out the songs for an hour or so in an impromptu radio show. (I may have even turned the then 10 watt FM station on in order to do this.) Holsapple and Stamey have collaborated frequently since their work together in the dbs days, but recently there has been talk of an actual dbs reunion in 2006.
Saturday night at Lee’s, Stamey opened with “Two Places at Once” from his 1991 album Fireworks. It’s a good thing I had seen a part of the soundcheck so I was somewhat prepared for how good this was going to sound; but I still had to jot “magical start” in my notes. This opening song was nothing short of scintillating and filled the bar with a positive vibe that would last for the duration of the set. Something I noticed right off in Stamey’s performance style was a tautness (as opposed to tightness, though that was unmistakably there too); but tautness as in the way a clock spring is wound tight as you can sense the restraint of energy behind even a slow song. He appears to have the kind of serious focus while playing you almost think it would get in the way of making music. Instead, it has the opposite effect. I can imagine that though every musician has good and bad nights, the approach Stamey and his band take to making music would lead to consistently great performances.
Stamey, still boyish-looking—some writers have commented he seems to be aging backwards—moved next to the soaring and existential “Kierkegard” off Travels in the South (you can listen to the song in the media room at the Yep Roc site here), and it was in this song that one of many Stamey guitar solos took center stage. Stamey’s playing is insanely good. On the inside of the half wall that somewhat awkwardly divides Lee’s Liquor Lounge (one key to judging the success of a Lee’s show is how many people watch the show from inside the wall) were more than a dozen people, many of whom I recognized as guitar players from local bands.
The band Stamey has assembled to support this album is top notch. Drummer Anton Fier (one time leader of the Golden Palominos, who also drummed for the Feelies, The Lounge Lizards, Per Ubu, and the list goes on) was a joy to watch—tight-lipped, eyes sometimes closed, so right on the beats he was practically one with them. A light bulb in Fier’s bass drum seemed in synch with Stamey’s guitar and you could actually see the drum and guitar sounds interacting (if you were paying that kind of attention.) Jazz pianist Tyson Rogers (who is also featured on Stamey’s latest Yep Roc release A Question of Temperature) played the first of many inspired piano solos of the night on this song. And bassist John Chumbris (of Gloryfountain, and who played bass on and helped produce The Slickee Boys 1983 Twin Tone debut The Cybernetic Dreams of Pi) held together a four piece band that is possibly one of the finest on the road right now. (Note Tyson Rogers was making a special appearance here at the Minneapolis tour stop.)
One standout track on Stamey’s most recent studio release is his cover of Television’s “Venus,” and that song came next in the set. Live, this classic song took on even more of a life of its own. There was a brilliant hesitation in the break at the end, slightly longer even than the one on the disk.
Stamey dedicated “It’s Alright” title track of his 1987 A&M album to Paul Stark, who apparently was not on hand tonight, but Stamey made reference to being locked into a room at Nicollet Studios where Stark had once recorded him on project, possibly with Alex Chilton? in years gone by. Stamey said “It’s Alright” was the first of many title tracks the band would play tonight. The song did not seem to be as much recognized by the Lee’s crowd (ironically, it’s from an album I myself don’t own), and the energy on the audience side dipped for a bit during the early part of the song, but Stamey’s confidence won even unfamiliar ears back by the end with another brilliant guitar solo.
“Something Came Over Me” (another one from Fireworks) came off like a Doors-like jam with eastern feel at times, Stamey’s guitar sounding almost sitar-like. (Instead of using foot pedals, Stamey has his effects on a stand, and works them by hand, giving him the ability to punch in more specific settings.) “Something Came Over Me” featured a longish guitar solo, but it's hard to consider a solo is self-indulgent if that’s part of what the audience came to hear.
“Insomnia” again transformed the room and took it down a notch, a cool, reflective vibe with a piano solo from Rogers that could be likened to a gentle waterfall.
Stamey did a windmill windup heading into “If and When,” technically the only dbs song of the night. At the song’s end he said, “That was the first dbs song ever recorded in a basement in New York.” The song appears on the dbs “basement tapes” album, a 1993 Rhino release called Ride The Wild Tom Tom of tracks recorded between 1978 and 1982.
Stamey has a new album due out someday soon called November, and he played a few songs from it Saturday, including a new one called “Before We Were Born” with a lyric that says, “I've got a feeling that I knew you before we were born.” And a song probably called “Feels Like It Goes on Forever” or something to that effect, with a lyric that says “You’ve got the only remedy, I want the cure.” From the one time I heard this song I found it to be rather melancholy, if you think Stamey is referring to life when he sings it “feels like it goes on forever.” And that clearly is not the case, even if it sometimes feels that way sometimes.
Cheers broke out during the intro of “I Want To Break Your Heart,” well known perhaps because it was on the Mavericks album, which was a Holsapple-Stamey collaboration from 1991. I particularly like the lyric, “You don’t ask a lot, but that’s what I’ve got.”
Up next was “McCaully Street (Let’s Go Downtown)” from the brand new disk, which careered into a cover of Cream’s 1969 song “Politician” without a break.
"14 Shades of Green" and the title song of Travels in the South were next and that marked the end of the set proper. Stamey was back for an encore of the William Bell composition “You don’t Miss Your Water” which appeared on Fireworks.
Related link: Chris Dorn of the Beatifics and I conducted an interview
with Stamey before the Lee's show. Check back in the next day or so for