I haven't written a concert review in a good long time. But this one felt worth reflecting on. However, it's also a bit of a personal essay and who really cares about my relationship with music, right? So if you want to skip the self-indulgence, I've put the salient details about the concert in bold.
When I saw that Fifth on the Floor was opening for Cowboy Mouth I was pleased and confused. Fifth on the Floor is a down-and-dirty Southern rock bar band -- the kind of pained intensity we know and love here on Adobe & Teardrops, Ninebullets, Americana Rock Mix, etc. etc etc. It's been a good couple of decades since Cowboy Mouth and most of their audience has been there. They're also not the kind of band who typically opens for the Mouth. I'd give any amount of money to find out how that booking happened. But it piqued my interest -- is Cowboy Mouth trying to return to its Southern roots?
The first thing to know is that BB King's manages to be a large venue that builds intimacy. There's a dance floor near the stage that is surrounded in a horse shoe by a few dozen plush leather booths as well as a bar that's half as long as an average New York City block. I don't think it's the most appropriate venue for a band like Fifth on the Floor, even with a receptive audience; there's too much space and it's just too cushy. That being said, the audience was not receptive. It was pretty much me, three other people (who I think were friends with the band), and a photographer. The rest of the crowd wanted their dinners or were saving their energy for Cowboy Mouth. Neither of these things are excuses.
That doesn't mean Fifth on the Floor didn't give it their damnedest. When you're performing at a level that makes the hairs on this audience member's arms stand up for each and every song, you're doing everything right. I mentioned a few days ago how I was completely out of my element at a dance party in Brooklyn. I felt right at home here, even though I was dancing by myself.
As singer Justin Wells noted in his completely adorable interview on Ninebullets, he's a deadpan, scary-looking dude. But the audience eventually warmed up once they realized Fifth on the Floor wasn't actually all that scary. I didn't get a chance to talk to them after the show, but if they see this...job well done. I hope they earned a few more fans out of the trip.
Contrasting Fifth on the Floor with Cowboy Mouth made me realize why my love for Cowboy Mouth has cooled over the last few years. Fifth on the Floor is, as my students would say, in "the struggle." They're touring like dogs and have built a solid reputation, but they're also young and Dealing With Things. Cowboy Mouth seems to be making an extremely comfortable living playing music -- they've got a nice tour bus, and every so often they'll post videos shot in Fred and Griff's homes. I was in preschool when Jenny broke Fred's heart. Now I use the old songs songs to self-medicate my breakups. As much as their music sustained me through adolescence, the newer stuff doesn't speak to me because it's...comfortable.
The fact is, I could've seen Cowboy Mouth last year. I had seen Tow Cow Garage the previous night, and it could've been a kickass rock and roll weekend...but I chose to hang out with some friends instead. What did I need a Cowboy Mouth concert for when I had just exorcised my demons with my new rock'n'roll heroes?
The fact is, that was a tragic mistake. Cowboy Mouth shows are simply a good time. Running on three hours of sleep, a full day CPR certification class, and the usual 20-something bullshit, I found the energy to commit to the show's rituals for the entire 90 minutes. I jumped and screamed and danced until I was nauseous -- always the hallmark of a Cowboy Mouth concert, but not a sensation I've felt in a good long time.
As far as the show itself, Griff was down for the count with the cold I'm now coming down with. It was interesting to see the reality of what long-time critics have often said about the band: the Fred LeBlanc show Featuring Some Other Guys. It certainly changed the dynamic (Lord love him, Matt Jones is a better guitarist than singer), but it was a different good time. It was interesting to hear Matt's take on the solos that Griff has played for the last 20 years.
An exciting piece of news, though, is that the band has just signed a record deal with Universal (according to Fred) and has recently completed recording on their 10th (I believe) studio album. The new song they played made my head spin a little. (I regret not recording it because I can't seem to find it on YouTube.) It was...really good. It begins with a jazzy, walking bassline and transforms itself into pop punk song before you realized what happened. It's all of the best elements of Fred's songwriting.
My problem with most of the band's recent output is that the music exists for the show. They're pop songs without the airplay. They're there to entertain and get people dancing and having a good time. There's nothing wrong with that. But we search for music we connect with. We consume and produce art for the uniquely human desire to express ourselves. When you lose that, you get pop music. Sure it's serviceable. But is that what's really at the heart of rock'n'roll? And that's why I chose Two Cow Garage over Cowboy Mouth last year: I needed rock'n'roll exorcism, not healing. Cowboy Mouth has made peace with their demons.
But there's something to be said for the consistency of a Cowboy Mouth show. I've been going to their concerts since I was 12. Cowboy Mouth was the first rock concert I ever saw, and it set a high standard for my expectations of what a rock and roll concert should do. I've been to these shows with friends, an ex-boyfriend (!!!), and an ex-girlfriend. High school, college, grad school, teaching, in the closet, out of the closet, in love, out of love. It's now at the point where I can have flashbacks of where my headspace was the five or six previous times I saw them play X song live, during Z point of the song, at Y venue (usually BB King's which, unlike Fifth on the Floor, really is the best venue for them.) There were songs that I don't even remember desperately connecting with until I heard them last night. Let's face it -- ninth grade was a long time ago.
For me, the shows have become less of a celebration of the present and more a celebration of how much I've grown. Even on my darkest days where only Micah Schnabel's deepest navel-gazing will do, I've thoroughly internalized Cowboy Mouth's philosophy of optimism, struggle, and success. In my secret heart I view myself as a rock'n'roll teacher with a Cowboy Mouth: I spread the Good News of critical thinking and self-love to my wayward sixteen year olds every day. I'd be plagiarizing if I denied I don't adopt some of Fred's on-stage persona in my classroom.
TL;DR: this is a meditation on the circle of life. Fifth on the Floor is where Cowboy Mouth once was many, many years ago. Cowboy Mouth itself is regaining its edge and I hope the new record deal gives them a boost. It just goes to show that as long as you persevere, you'll get back on top in the end. That's what the band has always taught me, anyway.
There were quite a few preteens at the show. I suspect that for many of them this was their very first concert. Fred called four middle school-age girls onto the stage to help him drum during "Jenny Says." I wasn't watching Fred or the girls so much as bassist Cassandra Faulconer. She always looks like she's having a grand old time, but her grin pretty much split her face in two this time. She saw what I saw: the power of rock'n'roll to bring us -- young and old alike -- out of our shells.
Fifth on the Floor, Cowboy Mouth