Something like what you’re about to read might have happened at a Karla Rose & the Thorns show. In case you’re up for a night of shadowy suspense, the noir cinematic rockers are playing Grand Victory on December 15 at around 10. Charismatic, dark psychedelic rocker Vic Thrill, of the Bogmen, plays beforehand at 9; cover is $10
It’s an unseasonably cool mid-July night in Cobble Hill. Outside Hank’s Saloon, a black Hummer with matching windows takes the corner off Atlantic onto Third Avenue a little too close. The heavy tread of the right rear tire clips the edge of the sidewalk. The imposing military-issue 4X4 lurches briefly and pulls up on the right, past the bus stop. A trio of hooded figures exit through the passenger door, into the shadows, and make their way to the bar.
Inside, there are three separate crowds, or at least the makings of them. In the darkest part of the bar, to the left of the door, a similarly shadowy cadre of locals gathers in a semicircle closed off to the rest of the patrons. It opens just enough to let the newcomers in and then closes again. A package is underhanded, briskly and nonchalantly, to the contingent at the bar rail. That gesture will be reciprocated, just as matter-of-factly, moments later.
A gaggle of pretty women in their 20s, poised and professional in their office wear, takes over the middle of the bar. They’ve got steam to blow off, in resreve, glad the work day’s over. Laughing and smiling, they gather around the ponytailed brunette in the center and her vast gallery of phone photos. They’re here for the band, looking forward to a night of minor keys and distant menace.
Dark Americana singer Jessie Kilguss walks in through the side door with her band. Setting up onstage, singer Karla Rose puts aside her Telecaster and cables; the two share a quick hug. Casual and inscrutable in her black bangs, black slacks and dark top, Rose is Josie Packard to Kilguss’ shiny, red-dressed Donna Hayward. The latter will eventually battle a problematic sound system and an increasingly noisy crowd which becomes mostly oblivious to what’s going on at either end of the joint. Later in the week she will leave on a long European tour with the Waterboys.
At the front of the bar, two middle-aged men banter tensely. The silver-haired gentleman closest to the stage, Brooklyn born and raised and proprietor of a well known music blog, has the upper hand. His younger counterpart, dressed in black from his boots to the top of his late-zeros vintage Mets cap, isn’t having it. “I actually saw the Dream Syndicate,” he scowls. “Not the original Karl Precoda version, but the one after that.” It’s not implausible. That band first broke up in 1989; a teenager would have had no problem getting into CBGB in those days.
In front of him on the bar is a black backpack. Several times throughout the show, he’ll reach inside for something shiny and metallic, as if to make sure it’s still there. Del Shannon gets covered; this is a bar, after all. So do the Collins Kids, a crepuscular, blue-flame number where the bassist learns it on the spot. He has to – it’s his hook.
Rose’s Telecaster is too low in the mix, but her voice isn’t. She cuts the corners a lot better than that SUV. Slithery blue notes and melismas float through the PA: if there are ghosts in this place, they’re out now. In a momentary break between songs, the bartendress comes out from behind the bar to give Rose a hug. “What was that Wanda Jackson song you played?” she wants to know.
“That’s Lorrie Collins,” Rose smiles. Then she jangles through a handful of expansive jazz chords over the rhythm section’s misterioso syncopation. Rose is a proficient jazz singer, but that’s not a style she does in this band. The man in black stares in, completely stumped. Then Rose begins the first verse of the Motels’ Only the Lonely, faster and more straightforwardly but also with more nuance than the wounded, reflecting-pool soul in Martha Davis’ vocals on the original. This will be the only time that the man in black’s features will soften, but not fondly or wistfully The expression is sadness. Distant memories of an old girlfriend, maybe? More likely, someone who wasn’t a girlfriend. Hard guys and hard lives are not strangers.
Rose leads the band through a slow killers-on-the-run narrative, an allusively murderous tale set in a seedy seaside Mexican tourist trap town and a slow number that sounds like a reverb guitar theme from a John Barry spy movie soundtrack. Lead guitarist Dylan Charles plays sparse, evocative mid-60s Memphis blues licks, wisps of ghoulabilly and a little purist C&W along with endless volleys of chainsaw chord-chopping, a hailstorm of reverb blasting from his amp. Rose sings mostly with her eyes closed, swaying, lost in minor keys. The blogger waits for his moment, then tilts his camera and catches Rose in full profile as she looks back to signal to the drummer. Meanwhile, Kilguss has joined the guys at the front of the bar. The man in black whispers something in her ear. Kilguss laughs, a waterfall of sound in contrast to the grey, rain-drenched sonics lingering overhead.
The show is over sooner than anyone expects. Afterward, Rose engages her fan base midway down the bar, smiles at their new pix. The man in black approaches her, rolls his eyes; she shrugs. A minute later, she slides a drink down the bar; he nods appreciatively, but the scowl lingers. Then he walks out.
At the police precinct outside the shoddy new basketball arena about a quarter mile away, the sound in the area is being monitored for gunshots. A computer is doing the honors. The man in black passes the conspiratorial crew huddled just inside the door and makes his way outside. They pay him no mind. He reaches deep into the backpack as he approaches the Hummer. If there’s a sudden pop or two, it’s drowned out by the rumble of the diesel of the eighteen-wheeler moving slowly up Atlatnic, accelerating out of the light.
To be continued?