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The Few Nice Words w/ General Ben and Cowboy Curtis (Friday, April 22nd, 2005, Kitty Kat Club, Minneapolis)
The Few Nice words onstage at the Kitty Kat Club - Photo by Steve McPherson (click for larger version )

By Steve McPherson

There’s something I really like about the Kitty Kat Club as a venue. Despite the less than ideal stage size and sound system, it’s always reminded me of the shows I played growing up in Massachusetts—no monitors, right up in people’s faces, nothing mic’d except vocals. Of course, it’s a lot nicer than those places when it comes to seeing shows, what with the quasi-jungle décor and comfy couches. Tonight, I’m exhausted, and if I had to pick a venue to be at alone to see Matt Foust’s new project, this is it. (Actually, it’d be from the comfort of my own couch, but since I started taking 100% of the door and paying bands in butter, no one wants to play in front of my couch anymore.)

General Ben takes the tiny stage first, featuring no one named Ben, but one guy named Brett Bullion on drums from Tiki Obmar and another named Luke Hillestad on nylon-string guitar and vocals. It’s guitar and drums, but they’re definitely not the White Stripes. Hillestad bases the songs around fingerpicking while Bullion accompanies him with some very melodic drumming. Sometimes I’m struck by the fact that in the Twin Cities there are two categories of drummer: guys (and girls) who play beats and guys/girls who sound like David King. Mr. King’s presence is strong at the Kitty Kat tonight, with Bullion treating the drums not so much as a groove thang as a collection of sound-making tools. It’s great to hear, actually, and the music General Ben makes is interesting, with echoes of acoustic acts like local Jeff Hanson and maybe Bright Eyes, a comparison particularly applying to Hillestad’s voice. Given the talent on display on the instruments, I couldn’t help but wish that the vocals were a little stronger. The stripped-down nature of the band is unique, but it tends to emphasize any part that’s not as strong.

Cowboy Curtis is a band I’ve seen on posters and heard about for nearly a year now, but this was my first time getting to see them, and I have to say, they have a terrible name. I think I steered clear of them for so long because of the kitschy association of their name with Pee Wee’s Playhouse and also some impression that there was something country about them. In reality, they’re a not-goofy band with almost nothing country about them. I recognized singer Neal Perbix from the Love-cars show last November, where he was front and center, singing along with most every song. That influence shows boldly on his sleeve as he guides the band through odd time-signatures, chunky-clean guitar parts from Jake Hanson, overdriven catharsis, and some more Dave King-esque drumming from brother Nate Perbix. Much like Love-cars, Cowboy Curtis manages to drum up emo (I mean good emo: Sunny Day, Promise Ring) levels of bluster without the annoying whiny aftertaste. A full-bodied brew, Cowboy Curtis is mining the same vein of smart pop that Love-cars opened.

Matt Foust is apparently still hanging around near that particular vein. In much the same way that Julian and Sean Lennon both look like John Lennon but not like each other, The Few Nice Words and Halloween, Alaska both sound like Love-cars, but not very much like each other. While Matt Foust’s new project incorporates both electronic sounds and Halloween, AK keyboardist Ev Olcott, they’re used more as texture than as structural unit, and the sage inclusion of Mike “Bill Mike” Michael on lap steel brought me back to his days with Love-cars. That, and Brett Bullion on drums for the second time tonight, had me waxing nostalgic for most of their set. Foust’s vocals are not unlike his bandmate James Diers’, although he tends towards either the whispery or the shouted, eschewing the middle ground. Once again, odd time-signatures and nine- and five-bar choruses dominated, and that’s the stuff I love. Foust’s ability to take a hackneyed progression and revitalize it by chopping off a beat or adding a bar is something I find myself trying to emulate, and I admire his ability to make these jigsaw creations feel natural. Of course, a lot of credit has to go to Bullion and Tiki Obmar bassist Graham Chapman’s sensitivity to the material. With Olcott and Michael layering textures in over the top, the closest relative in sound is definitely Love-cars. Foust has assembled a crack group of fellow travelers here, and I can’t wait to hear the album which I hope is forthcoming.

Steve McPherson is at steve.mcpherson@howwastheshow.com