The Boston Phoenix
August 10 - 17, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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C60 rise from the dead with a hit

Cellars by Starlight by Sean Richardson

You couldn't pick a better time than right now to be a pure, unadulterated hard-rock band from Boston. Standing atop the commercial heap, of course, are Godsmack, whose follow-up to their homonymous 1997 platinum debut is one of this fall's most eagerly awaited major-label releases. Menacing Massholes Staind and Reveille came to a lesser degree of national prominence last year riding Godsmack's coattails; Allston rockers Half-Cocked are poised to do the same after fleeing to LA with the blessing of newly minted rock stars/fellow Boston expats Powerman 5000. Success has also trickled down to the local underground: Tree and Scissorfight, both long-time faves on the hardcore scene, recently scored unexpected hits on commercial rock radio.

C60 are the latest homegrown hard-rock success story -- and an unlikely one at that. Known as Cobalt 60 during their first incarnation, in the early '90s, they won the Rumble in 1993 and released an EP, Radiator, a year later. They broke up soon after the EP was released, not to be heard from again until they crawled out of the cobwebs for a one-off reunion show at Bill's Bar last summer. They thought they were doing the show purely for kicks, but it turns out people missed them more than they expected: the show sold out early, and soon after they were approached by Jeff Marshall, owner of the local Monolyth label, about recording a CD. A year later, they've got a hit single, "Crazy," in rotation on WFNX and WBCN, and a debut disc, C60, in stores. The band will celebrate the album's release with a show this Friday at Bill's Bar.

For a local band, getting airplay alongside the Beastie Boys and the Dave Matthews Band on commercial radio is akin to winning the lottery. And the members of C60 are the first to admit how lucky they've been. When I talk to singer Keith Smith, drummer Jay Potts, guitarist Dan Mullen, and manager Hugh Burnham over barbecue at the Linwood Grille, Smith uses one word to explain their good fortune. "Love. People just liked `Crazy.' We put some work into making sure the people who liked us the first time around got a chance to hear the new stuff. When they all heard it, they loved it."

Burnham, a major-label A&R vet and certified punk legend (he was the original drummer in Gang of Four) who also produced the disc, is more philosophical. "It's a mixture of a number of things. It's a song that works really well with what else radio is playing right now. We don't have a record company with a big promotion team to help get it on the radio. We're a Boston band that mean it, the radio stations know it, and we've given them something to play that works. People are calling in and loving it."

Indeed, "Crazy" has new-metal smash written all over it. Opening with a sinister riff from Mullen and a ferocious scream ("C'mon!") from Smith, it breaks into a Facelift-era Alice in Chains funk-metal groove as Smith howls, "Turn on my TV/Covert slavery/No good news today/Gotta find a better way." Mullen lets off a sleazy trill-and-whammy-laced solo at the halfway point that judiciously complements the anger in Smith's lyrics. You can call it derivative if you want to, but there's no doubt it rocks.

"I remember when we first played `Crazy,' it was like it was a live show in our practice space," says Mullen. "Dan came out with the riff and we all just jumped all over it," adds Potts. "That's the way it happens with us a lot of the time. That's what's cool about this band. We took that hiatus and played with other bands, but when we got back together, it was like, `Oh yeah.' There's just this magic."

When Cobalt 60 flickered out, in '94, that magic had disappeared. They had become more of a business than a band, and everyone agrees that their renewed vitality has everything to do with the hiatus. Smith spent time in Europe and on the West Coast, all the while cultivating his newfound respect for pop songcraft. "I jammed around with this great punk band in Germany and learned a lot about writing songs. Before that, as a singer, I was always trying to project and be the front performer. By playing guitar and sitting back, I grew to understand more about hooks and song construction, where things belong in a song.

"A lot of people worry about selling out. If you're really a musician and you love your craft, then you can find a way to make something that makes you and the public happy. I've grown to really like the new Limp Bizkit record. They're not afraid of pop. To me some of the greatest bands had hooks. Whether it was the Bad Brains or the Misfits -- or even someone like Britney Spears -- music is all about hooks and things that attract people. Limp Bizkit is one of those bands that understood that and wasn't afraid to be heavy and hooky at the same time."

C60 puts the band's heavy foot forward first, opening with "Crazy," "Devil by the Deed" ("That song's got threefold hate," says Smith with a mischievous chuckle), and the raunchy "Never." But C60 also reveal a gentler nature here, particularly on love songs like "This Crush," "Your Way," and "Gone," where Smith shows off his sensitive side while maintaining his dark outlook. "I mastered screaming my ass off when I was 22. I know I can scream with the best of them. At this point, I'm going to sing."

After recording the album, C60 brought in second guitarist JR Roach, the former drummer with now-defunct local hardcore stalwarts Sam Black Church. (Bassist Andrew Padua rounds out the line-up.) Burnham had suggested getting a second guitarist, and Mullen conceded it would make it a lot easier to duplicate the sound of the record live. "JR was the first and only guitar player we tried out for the gig," says Potts. "We always hung out anyway, so it was cool. We got the mastered version of the CD and the word was, `Don't play this for anybody. It's not out yet, we gotta be cool about it.' I had JR over at my house, and I couldn't help it -- I played it for him. I got in a little bit of trouble for that. The next day he calls Keith and goes, `What do I gotta do to be in this band, man?' "

The band have landed a few prize gigs lately, playing the second stage at the Tweeter Center when Kiss came to town and the parking lot of the Palladium in Worcester before the second of the two free Limp Bizkit shows there last month. Like Tree and Sam Black Church before them, they've made sure to hit the suburban club circuit as well as the traditional Boston venues. "The agent comes up with these shows," says Burnham, "and I'm like, `Where?' But then I think, `I haven't heard of this place -- and that's why we should play it.' This is why we're doing this. We've all been at one time the kid who didn't live in the middle of the city and have it all laid out." Potts adds, "Those kids hear you on the radio and they go nuts for you when you come out their way."

Lately, Smith has been dealing with kids going nuts a little closer to home -- at the Brookline grocery store where he works. (He doesn't want me to name it here, but it's listed in the liner notes to the album.) "Every time I come into work, they're always like, `Your groupies were in today.' There's a squad of 15-year-old girls that come in and serenade me once a week. There's all these kids that come in and ask for autographs. They go to the Web site all the time. At first they [the store people] started yelling at me at my job about it, but now they don't mind 'cause they realized all these people are buying stuff."

For his part, Smith doesn't seem too worried that C60 are appealing more to radio-listening teens than to the local rock cognoscenti. What really gets him is a more widespread problem with the scene. "The kids are the ones that keep rock and roll alive and the independent bands can't get to them because no clubs will do all-ages shows. At least [they could] do loose 18-plus shows. When I'm on stage, my inner child runs the place. Those are my peeps."

The stage is not the only place where Smith lets his inner child run wild. During our conversation, he apologizes to Mullen for missing a recent video-game date with the guitarist's grade-school-age kids. He's also wearing a Tomb Raider T-shirt, and he claims he was about to go back to California and test video games for Sony when the C60 reunion came up. "I'm an addict. I have ADD, so it helps me get through the day. It's my Ritalin. `Zombie Lincoln' [a feverish punk rave-up from the album] is my ode to ADD. If you listen to the lyrics, you can tell. `Pixels, sprites, and polygons.' I had to put Tomb Raider in there because that was the game that started it all for me. I bought a PlayStation after I saw that game in a magazine, and I haven't left my house during the weekdays since. Unless we're playing a show or practicing, I'm sitting at home."

C60's CD-release show takes place this Friday, August 11, at Bill's Bar. Call 421-9678.

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