In the 14 years during which East Texas State University has been holding its "Five Star Concert Series," never once has a rock-and-roll band graced the school's stage. There have been country bands (Bryan White, who's "country" only between the quotation marks), comedians (such as Sinbad), even the occasional R&B act (R. Kelly once made the trip to Commerce, about 50 miles east of Dallas, where they surely loved his brand of I'm-gonna-sex-you-up soul), but never anything too loud, too raw--too, like, college. The reason why is simple: The student committee that votes on the three acts per year simply refused, year after year, to book a rock band. Everybody cut footloose.
But as the second-floor auditorium of the university's social-sciences building begins to fill up with the usual motley assemblage of would-be prepunks with half-assed mohawks (no shaved heads, just lots of mousse to make the hair stand on end) and flannel shirts and torn jeans, it becomes clear this is the dawning of the Age of Alternative around these parts.
Tonight, ETSU is hosting its first rock concert, a double bill featuring Tripping Daisy and opening band UFOFU. Both bands have been imported from Dallas for a rather substantial fee, and a thousand or so kids--some of them students at the university, even more of them high-school students from around the area who've never stepped inside a rock club--have plunked down their allowances to hear the Daisy and UFOFU.
"Some of them even came from Paris," gushes Jandy Thompson, a premed sophomore at ETSU and the president of the "Five Star Concert Series" committee. Thompson, standing backstage before the concert and looking quite smart in her dark-blue suit, says she had to wage a long and difficult battle to get the rest of the committee--which consists of members of the Greek Council, the Student Activities Board, and other student organizations--to approve the booking. "I was the only one on the committee that even listens to alternative rock," she shrugs. "I mean, I go to Deep Ellum or Lower Greenville almost every weekend."
Then she adds, almost apologetically, "There just isn't much to do in Commerce."
This is an odd venue for UFOFU and the Daisy: It has the air of a high-school auditorium, and before UFOFU comes out, one expects the principal to make an announcement about tonight's junior-varsity football game. The auditorium, itself sort of art deco without the art, is less than packed--the back rows are empty, as is much of the tiny balcony--but the kids crave the rock. They want the rock. They need the rock.
Which is what UFOFU delivers, though to a crowd of kids for whom The Edge's playlist is still an exotic pleasure, the audience doesn't know quite what to make of the band--which consists of a formally trained jazz guitarist (Joe Butcher), a classically trained pianist-turned-bassist (Brandon Curtis), and a 17-year-old drummer raised on Minor Threat and Circle Jerks (brother Ben Curtis). The crowd stands as the band makes its entrance--Joe Butcher introduces the band by singing, off key, "I'll suck your dick for a crack rock--even if you're a girl"--then the audience sits halfway through the first song; only a handful of kids, near the right front of the stage, remain standing throughout the band's 45-minute set.
"Some of you guys know who we are?" Butcher asks during a rare moment of between-song silence, when Brandon rushes to change a broken bass string. There is a smattering of applause, a few hoots of recognition. "That's a very comforting thought," Joe shrugs. He wears a Boys Town T-shirt, a sly joke for those who know Butcher is gay. ("It's a cafeteria," he jokes before the show. "A boy-fet.")
Usually, UFOFU does not speak to its audience from the stage. Brandon explains that his silence stems from his being uncomfortable having "blind conversations" with strangers, and he doesn't "feel obligated to talk to the audience."
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about UFOFU is the way Brandon and Joe sound together: Joe's the "punk" voice of the band, and Brandon's the "pop" opposite, bright where Butcher is dark. Yet together they fit like bulb into socket, and if they don't exactly harmonize, they at least sing in one voice. They also keep quiet together.
"I'm not sure if we need to be the guys-next-door being friendly," Brandon explains after the show. "I don't think our music says that about us. The musicianship is far beyond the garage-band thing, so I don't think we should be treated like that by anyone. I don't know if it's ego-driven, and if it is, well, I still feel that way." Butcher explains his reasoning this way: "Less is more, maybe."
These are musicians with a vision, a sense of purpose, and a desire to create an identity; they would prefer to use publicity photos that don't show their faces, if only Pavement and Bedhead hadn't already done so. This audience doesn't much care for those things, and so the band will insist at the end of the night that the show didn't go well, but in truth, UFOFU won the talent show on this night in this would-be high-school auditorium.
They showed up the headliners, made a brilliant rock-and-roll sound that sometimes bordered on arena-rock free-jazz and sometimes skirted the pop-punk issue, and they proved you need not speak to the audience to be heard or even liked.
On the surface, the members of UFOFU could be tagged Nirvana-bes, but of the most noble breed: "The Thing of It Is" off their new four-song EP (available on the Long Beach, California-based Time Bomb label) kicks with a Foo Fighter force; theirs is a catchy and brutal brand of rock and roll, a pastiche of power-trio conventions presented as though brand-new. UFOFU may well have begun as a prog-rock notion back when Joe Butcher was living in New York City and fronting an earlier incarnation of the band that featured no vocals, but it has since evolved into a power trio that pays homage to the concept of rock as a larger palette.
Their interpretation is a much broader one: "Yeah Yeah" (from the same EP) revisits 1983 new wave in all its delirious repetition, but the band also has a penchant for exploring the furthest boundaries of pop, where the melodies begin to fall away the longer the musicians draw out the notes and peel away the cool exterior. In concert, as in front of a befuddled and bemused ETSU crowd, Butcher and the brothers Curtis suddenly and inexplicably break into improv between tightly structured songs; they attack Lunch Factor's "Oya Oya" like Ornette Coleman fronting the Pixies, the notes rubbing against each other till they're rubbed raw.
"I want to try and take things out more, but some of the newer stuff is more rock," Butcher says of the disparate sound. "I used to try to be this progressive-punk stuff. I was listening to Zappa but was into metal and hard-core and all that silly shit.
"The earlier incarnation of this band had a horn player and this chick playing cello. I wanted it to be like Zappa meets Nine Inch Nails meets Deee-Lite meets Charlie Parker, but it didn't work out that well. I needed time for the music to find itself--it needed time to find itself in the dumpster. I used to write music for the band to read a long time ago, but I'm a rocker now."
After UFOFU's set--a triumph even if no one in the audience noticed--the Daisy takes the stage with new drummer Mitch Marine in tow. Though concert officials insist the audience sit before the Daisy makes its entrance, the crowd is on its feet throughout the band's show--and it is a Show if nothing else, all bright lights and frontman Tim DeLaughter's ghastly theatrics and annoying voice. A blond wig covers his green hair--no, wait, it's supposed to be funny.
Marine, the longtime Brave Combo drummer brought in to replace the exhausted and bored Bryan Wakeland, gives the Daisy an extra kick; if the band was a 10-speed before, it's now a Harley-Davidson, all muscle and bulging veins. But if you don't have the songs, musicianship will only take you half the way home. Luckily, we had a car to take us the rest of the way.
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