Matthew Grimm Gets the Crowd at Rodeo Bar to Shut Up, Sort Of
Rodeo Bar on a Friday night is not the first place in New York that you might think of for music that inspires close listening. And it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Matthew Grimm got the crowd there last night to shut up. But he did he did get them to quiet down some, and not by shushing them from the stage. He did it with his lyrics. “Nobody wants to hear a song about a little black dog,” he drawled early in the set, but an awful lot of people in the packed house did. That song, from Grimm’s lyrically rich and frequently hilarious new album Songs in the Key of Your Face, is less about the dog than it is about the kind of people who believe in a very magical furry friend who can do things like make those people immortal. “I haven’t fact-checked all of this, but it’s better than the world we know,” the Iowa songwriter deadpanned as he punched out chords on his Telecaster, backed by a tight, excellent pickup band including Butchers Blind‘s Pete Mancini on lead guitar, Mick Hargreaves on bass and a solid, four-on-the-floor drummer (was that Dave Stengel? From the far wall facing the bar, it was hard to see).
Grimm got his start in New York fronting the Hangdogs, who were playing one of their more-or-less annual reunion shows afterward (an only-in-New-York clusterfuck of bad trains, heavy pregaming and a long trek home afterward nixed any possibility of a review of that show – but here’s an idea of how it might have gone). That crew began in the mid-90s as a high-voltage bar band and ended more or less about ten years later, after the release of Wallace ’48, a brilliant, savagely political Americana rock record. Hangdogs shows were always a hang, usually a late one, Grimm assaulting the crowd with one-liners that got funnier and more vicious as the night wore on. This time out Grimm barely spoke to the crowd, obviously trying to pack as much of a musical wallop into his set as he could considering that the Rodeo usually doesn’t even have opening bands.
He opened with the scampering, anthemic Woody Guthrie’s 33rd Resolution, whose singalong tagline is “Wake up and fight!” Grimm’s songs can be witheringly cynical, but this time out there was a gleam in his eye: this is a guy whose time has come, and he knows it, and he’s been waiting for it since long before the Occupy movement existed. You wouldn’t think that a Rodeo Bar crowd would lean in to catch every line in a slow, determined polemic like The Enemy, but they did. It’s an illustration of how those in power play the divide and conquer game, pitting private sector employees against those on the public payroll. That Grimm could take such a prosaic, never mind divisive topic and make genuine, no-nonsense rock out of it speaks to his ability as a tunesmith and wordsmith. In front of a Manhattan audience who’ve been waiting to see the death of the despised Bloomberg political empire finally appear on the horizon, Grimm reflected a sense of triumph and renewal.
He brought up a pedal steel player to add some flickering honkytonk licks on a resolute cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty; later in the set, Mancini’s sinuous lead lines took centerstage on a smartly edited version of the Dire Straits depression epic Telegraph Road. There were funny songs from the new album – Back Booth, a wry reflection on a hookup that never happened, and Go the Fuck Home Mindy, with its LMFAO annoying drunk girl – and the unselfconsciously hopeful One Big Union, a theme song for a real labor union somewhere in the heartland. But the best song of the night, and arguably the most harrrowing one played in a venue anywhere in New York in the past year, was the closer, West Allis. It’s a shuffling highway rock tune about a guy who leaves his job – it’s not clear whether he’s retiring or he’s been laid off – then drives home, forwards his mail, pays the bills and shoots himself. Grimm’s vocals throughout the set had been pretty matter-of-fact, but finally, at the end of the song, he cut loose. “Four years, you think someone might have noticed something gone,” he railed: see, the guy’s Wisconsin neighbors didn’t see him around much, so he wasn’t missed in “four years of unshoveled sidewalks and unmowed lawns.” Being part of society didn’t seem to matter much to him – or did it? “He made his choice, we make ours, the world endures, “Grimm intoned. But,
Maybe you’re your brother’s keeper not by code or creed or canon
But a simple hope that someone will be yours
Mancini ended the song with a single one of the plaintive guitar licks that wind up the album version. After that, even a Hangdogs show would have been anticlimactic.