Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.
She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.
With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.
Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.
The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.
Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.