If you haven’t been to the Sunset Tavern lately, well, it’s time for another visit. Aside from the negligible awkwardness of having the bar separate from the concert space (necessitating getting your hand stamp checked each time you grab a beer), there is now a much better stage configuration with a more square, wider room for viewing the show. It’s still cozy (and still boasts the decor of the Orient), but it’s miles better than the long, narrow room it was before. If you were at The Sunset last Wednesday, that squarish room was fat with rock ‘n’ roll.
The Mama Rags have an infectious single, “Change You,” a juggernaut that starts off with a country-blues riff and builds to a crescendo of vocal, loosey-goosey drumming and jangly guitars that will surely lurk about the rooms of your consciousness many days after a listen (or two, or five). The band had an earnest, straight-ahead rock performance with tunes that lovingly hark back to the sounds of the Seventies. Rest assured, however, that The Mama Rags bring newness to the table in the form of vocalist TJ Kelly, whose voice rings with an indie flavored flair that lands him closer to the Nineties than any earlier decade. Drummer Ian Cunningham was impressive at the drum set, at times smiling at bassist Peter Booker only to segue into a furious fill or solo with an equally intense face. Guitarist Colin Moen tied it all together with guitar work that favored a lighter, rather than heavier sound.
Reno’s Moondog Matinee took it from there, whipping things into a frenzy at times. It’s no mistake that Moondog Matinee and The Mama Rags’ sound meshes well; both band names reference, well, The Band. But while Moondog Matinee definitely has a throwback sound, it’s one that relies on keyboards and the antics of its frontman, Pete Barnato, whose personality filled The Sunset almost from the moment he stepped up on stage. Whether grasping the rafters while standing on the bass drum, humping the bass drum, flamboyantly dancing, or leaning precariously into the crowd, Barnato was the epicenter of the group at all times. Guitarists Steve Widmer and Drea Ballard played fairly stolidy, though it was impossible to remain unaffected by Barnato’s antics; the whole room was cracking grins. It being Neil Young’s birthday, the group blazed through a faithful yet gritty rendition of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio.”
Thunderpussy wasn’t to be outdone in the Neil Young department, busting out their own cover of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The band also brought their own brand of energy to the table in the form of Molly Sides, whose voice seems to well from far down inside and blast out like a vibrato volcano, never mind the sexy bursting at the seams. Whitney Petty’s guitar was the dirtiest and heaviest of the night, turning bluesy, standard-sounding songs like “Fever” and “Pick It Up” into grinding, growling romps. Sides put on a fascinating physical performance; her contortions and facial expressions both ass-kicking and provocative. Bassist Leah Julius kept low-beat time along with a beast of a man in a dress and fishnets who appeared to be standing in for usual drummer Lena Simon. Thunderpussy has a shtick, to be sure, but it’s one that goes beyond any goofiness, as it is based on rock solid rock ‘n’ roll.
All told, it was one of the best shows in recent memory. Every single band on this night was self-focused on the task of their music and performance, and it was good. It was very, very good.