Last night was all about discovery, and rediscovery. The first was five-piece rock band the Downward Dogs, who ripped through a smart, diverse, energetically jangly set of southwestern-tinged rock at the National Underground. Fronted by an animated guitarist who goes by the name Joe Yoga, the band puts a unique spin on Giant Sand style desert rock via an excellent two-piece horn section (tenor sax and trumpet) with some neat, terse charts by the sax player. Backed by an imaginative, tight drummer and a nimble bassist whose tensely rising, trebly lines enhanced the suspenseful ups and downs of the songs, Yoga led the band through a mix of big swaying anthems and quieter, more brooding material. Every single song in the set was good. The lyrics were intriguing. This being the National Underground, it wasn’t easy to hear them: between the dodgy sound mix and the noisy yuppie puppy crowd who’d come in from Long Island to see the whimpering wimps who played beforehand, it wasn’t easy to hear anything, particularly the pensive, sometimes smoldering sax parts. Random, ominous images cut through the roar: the only thing left standing on 93rd St. (yikes!); someone waiting for something awful to happen; the impossibility of getting away with something, “a couple of years after the war.” A refreshing social awareness made its way to the surface: “I am revolution, and I am dead, but I never felt better,” Yoga hollered sarcastically over the dramatic whoosh of the cymbals at one point. The songs ranged from punchy, syncopated mariachi-flavored rock with swirling trumpet, a couple of warmly bouncy Wallflowers-style soul-rock tunes, a couple of pensively expansive anthems that wouldn’t be out of place in the Oxygen Ponies catalog, and a biting garage rock number to close the set on a high note.
After the Downward Dogs, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys played Lakeside. Clark is an artist in the purest sense of the word. Was he going to wait til eleven to hit the stage like most of the Friday night acts here do? No way. He went on early so he and his tight-beyond-belief four-piece band could take their time and mix a few choice covers into the mix along with some new material and familiar crowd-pleasers. Clark isn’t unknown to an international audience: among New York musicians, he’s universally respected . As one audience member remarked, astonished, he manages to play lickety-split yet soulful lead guitar and sing at the same time, and write excellent songs, with good lyrics. It was good to hear that he’s finally going back into the studio next month for a new album, because the new material is characteristically choice. A lot of the songs were upbeat highway rock tunes, but the band varied the dynamics, breaking one down unexpectedly into an almost reggae interlude. The biggest hits with the crowd were New Toothbrush on Your Sink, with its wickedly catchy Flamin Groovies vibe, and If That’s Country Music, I’d Like to Know What Country It’s From, a viciously spot-on commentary on what gets played on “country” radio these days. In between verses and choruses, Clark spun off one lightning-fast solo after another, switching effortlessly between bluegrass, staccato Buck Owens riffage, blue flame Rolling Stones vamps and incisive janglerock. Lead guitar might be a dying art – for the prissy boys of Bushwick, guitars are decor for fashion shoots – but then again, it was ten years ago when Clark was packing crowds into Manitoba’s to watch his fingers fly. The covers were great, too – Albert Hammond’s It Never Rains in Southern California, with the excellent bassist doing the original riffs note-for-note; a similarly edgy, uneasy take of Danny O’Keefe’s Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues and “a song Elvis Costello covered,” an understatedly intense Good Year for the Roses. Clark is upstairs at 2A this Sunday the 16th at around 8 with Lenny Kaye playing pedal steel, plus an expected cavalcade of similar NYC rock luminaries.