Sunday afternoon at Marcus Garvey Park, it was validating to watch Above the Moon take over the big stage like they owned the place. The last time this blog was in the house at one of their shows, it was a weeknight at a hideous little Chinatown mob joint where frontwoman/Telecaster player Kate Griffin’s vocals weren’t even in the mix. Which was a crime, because her voice will give you chills. Still, good things started happening: all of a sudden, the band were headlining Arlene’s on Friday nights, and they’ve released a series of excellent ep’s. The data-mining dorks at the big corporate venue chains don’t get it, but Above the Moon are proof that there’s still a massive market for smart, fiercely tuneful rock.
Their sound these days is tighter and harder than it’s ever been, a lot less jangly. Griffin played her usual uneasy mix of roaring, distorted major and minor chords punctuated by Shawn Murphy’s gritty, new wave-ish bass and Strat player James Harrison’s terse, incisive upper-register chordlets and simple, jagged blues leads. Drummer John Gramuglia provided a relentless, colorful stomp, using his whole kit, not just the kick and the snare like a lot of bands with this kind of sound.
Likewise, Griffin uses every inch of her mighty voice’s register, from ominous lows to wailing highs, leaping and bounding effortlessly. The high point of the show was when the music came to a sudden stop after a chorus, but Griffin kept wailing for a couple of seconds of raw adrenaline until the band jumped back in again. There’s always been a restlessness in her songwriting, and the new, angrier edge is a welcome development. Maybe it’s a sign of the times. The band are about to record yet another ep, and the new material is more punk and new wave-influenced than ever. Songs ended sudden and cold, and the final, slowly crescendoing anthem brought to mind a Buzzcocks epic from the 80s.
The rest of the bill was a mixed bag. The last band opened with what sounded like a loud guitar version of a Madonna hit from the 90s and got really cheesy from there, with a goofy ha-ha presence and lazy, inept Pearl Jam-style open chords. After Above the Moon, Mojo & the Mayhem were as lame as their name, which was sad because they have really good songs, and a strong frontwoman who has the timing and the flair to go deep into the group’s attempt to work an oldschool soul vibe. It’s rare to see a band with such purist, catchy material looking so lost onstage. Maybe they’d get somewhere with a different lineup (and a different name – ouch). The horns were ragged, and the guys in the group should know better than to try to upstage a good lead singer on the mic – or, for that matter, to take a halfhearted stab at fake ebonics at a Harlem show. That was shameful. And the bassist and guitarist looked like mercenaries, bored out of their minds, phoning it in and then overplaying when they finally got to take centerstage.
Cosmonaut Radio, on the other hand, do one thing and one thing spectacularly well: psychedelic funk, with a little oldschool 70s disco in places. They were literally as tight as their drummer. And they have a sense of humor; “We’ve got one more for ya. That’s the name of the song: ‘One More For Ya,’” one of the group’s two Telecaster players explained to the crowd – and then treated them to at least another half-hour of groove. With chicken-scratch rhythm, wah-wah lead guitar, smoky organ, a fiery two-man horn section, wryly processed bass and a high-voltage soul chanteuse out in front, they did their best to get a sleepy indian summer crowd on their feet. But it was a hot day; people seemed more interested in sipping Hennessy and smoking weed than moving around much.