WCFM Musicfest spotlights D.C.-based Dismemberment Plan

The last time The Dismemberment Plan played a gig in Williamstown, they were treated to top-shelf tequila shots – the good stuff, $8 an ounce to paying customers – all night, courtesy of the management at what once was Mezze. That was several years ago, and the show reportedly drew a crowd of approximately six. Those few, privileged students have since cycled through the College system, and it’s not clear how WCFM convinced the band to come back without that particular perk. However, whatever the radio station did, it worked to draw out more students this time around – and not just from Williams. People as far as Salem, Mass. and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. trekked out to the Berkshires to catch a free live show of an indie rock band that has done little to revolutionize the market, but knows how to do well what it is that they do.

Opener Godling, a senior-heavy Williams band that mixes well-rehearsed covers and catchy alternative originals, drew an enthusiastic reception from the growing crowd, but failed to convince them to get on their feet. Their set seemed laced with a trace of nostalgia, as audience members seemed to recognize that this instance of the group on stage together was one of precious few left before this June’s graduation splits the talented group down the middle. The College will be a better place if drummer Matt Young ’05 and bassist Davy Stevenson ’04 decide to keep on with the skills and form a new band out of the remnants of this one.

A highlight of their hour-long set, which was their second of the day and included repeats of songs from their noontime performance at WCFM’s Musicfest, was the infectiously poppy original “Back to the Ocean,” a song which guitarist Brendan Reid ’02 penned over Winter Study and performed first to an overwhelmingly positive reception at the singer-songwriter concert immediately before dead week. Concertgoers attending both the January performance and this one could appreciate the metamorphosis the song has undergone, from a mildly apologetic acoustic ditty to a fully-developed, bass- and drum-accompanied ode to finding one’s place in the world, starting in the bathroom. Judging from the spirited applause the song received, fans hope that this song’s place will be on the WCFM top-ten charts.

In particular, Godling’s cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” was precisely and courageously delivered, incorporating vocals from all band members. Later, Dismemberment Plan frontman Travis Morrison, albeit forgetting the opening band’s name, commented during his nod to them that he was impressed with their willingness to go after such a beloved anthem, since he “wouldn’t touch that song with a ten-foot pole; I’d just f— it up.”

At the conclusion of their set, the audience clamored for “One more!” Lead vocalist and guitarist Eric Katerman ’02, looking pleased but modest at the cheering, laughingly reminded the crowd that “opening bands don’t play encores.” He then graciously turned over the stage for a one-song performance by a group from Vassar College, who earlier in the day had performed at the Musicfest. Without their lead singer, who seemed to have wandered off between the afternoon performance and the evening’s events, the trio jammed for maybe a minute longer than the audience had patience for, awaiting as they were so anxiously the main course of the evening.

As seems to be typical of the shows sent up on Goodrich stage, the headlining band set up their own equipment with a bare minimum of roadies. It never gets old to see that even rock stars aren’t too proud to handle gaffer tape and tune their own guitars.

Frontman Morrison wasted no time getting control of his center microphone, charismatically chanting even his tests of the levels and monitors. The audience, which had swollen from a meager gathering to a respectable (if rain-soaked) crowd – certainly greater in number and enthusiasm than the audience that awaited the band during their 1998 appearance in Billsville – was taken by surprise when the band launched without warning into a high-energy rendition of “What Do You Want Me To Say.”

It became immediately apparent that Morrison, flanked by bassist Eric Axelson, drummer Joe Easley and guitarist Jason Caddell, loves what he does. He reveled in the spotlight – it didn’t seem to matter how big the audience was or whether they were there because of undying fanaticism for him or simply for lack of anything better to do that night, because the lights and all eyes were on him. The rest of the band seemed content to hang back and just play the music for Morrison to sing to without drowning him out. The one exception to this rule came late in the evening, when Axelson seized the mike to remind the audience that he’d be doing the grunt-work of selling t-shirts and CDs right off the stage after the show. The group, for all its charisma and energy saved up for the audience, shows surprisingly little intra-band chemistry.

The only time Morrison showed reliance on his bandmates came after Axelson snapped the E-string off his bass toward the end of their two-hour set. Morrison decided he wanted to wear the string as a necklace, but showed ineptitude in tying it around his own neck, and so enlisted Axelson’s help. He rolled his eyes in typical prima donna fashion and, after rejecting Godling’s bassist Stevenson’s charitable offering of her own bass guitar, shook his head amusedly as Axelson attempted to continue to provide bass backup on amplified keyboards.

Morrison’s arrogance is not to be dismissed, however, as just another instance of indie-rock-star self-importance. His smugness and cynicism contributes greatly to his songwriting, translating especially skillfully to on-stage performance. He quipped sharply – in fact, just short of bitterly – about failing classes in college in order to attend indie rock concerts, and later mocked a whooping fan. At other times, clearly in his element, he gave the impression of being just shy of orgasm, his guitar – emblazoned with “Taxation Without Representation,” as companion to his frequent shout-outs to his hometown Washington, D.C. – starring as his lover.

Teasing the audience with a promise of a “super-rare live” performance of “Automatic” from their most recent album release Change, Morrison aborted the effort less than thirty seconds into the opening strains. Instead, in response to audience request, the band shot off “The Ice of Boston,” a tribute to isolation and alcoholic tendencies when alone, depressed and far from home on New Year’s Eve.

On the other hand, “The City” seemed oddly reserved for the band – perhaps the bass keyboards weren’t amped up enough, or maybe Morrison’s heart just wasn’t in it at the moment, but the song seemed strangely lethargic given the positive audience reaction upon their recognition of its first chords. “I’m not unsympathetic,” they sang, but it seems that they might have been apathetic.

Their renditions of older releases, like the tormented “Spider In The Snow,” which was first released in 1998, contrasted with their more recent and marketable sound of songs like “Following Through,” off their newest album. To be honest, what works best for them is the fact that their songs blend into each other with their irregular beats and Morrison’s full-range whine and angst, so the
contrast was truly neither remarkable nor distracting.

I’m thrilled they agreed to come back to Williamstown, tequila shots notwithstanding. While the Plan is beginning to show its age as a band primarily aimed at college-age kids – Morrison got a little too excited when someone threw a towel up on stage, immediately perceiving it as “a really large, terrycloth bra” – they really make some great music. After the show, Morrison cavorted with co-eds and minor-league groupies, some of whom had followed the band directly to Williamstown from Boston. From here, the Plan takes off for a whirlwind two-week tour of the South, concentrating specifically on dates in Florida.

As for the rest of the Musicfest, some hopefuls were disappointed by the advertised appearance of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists who were, in fact, not scheduled to play this weekend. However, student talent on display revealed an extensive collection of jazz lovers and grassroots, some inspiring underclassman taking the reins of the stage – and indicating a future in live, Williams-based campus shows, even after the principal players in groups like Godling and the Jazz Money Millionnaires have graduated.