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Neighborhood bar
Why the Abbey’s not too shabby

It’s a typical Saturday night at the Abbey Lounge in Somerville, and the Coffin Lids are on stage doing a song that sums up the zeitgeist. "Beer and Rock & Roll" finds singer Mike Feudale declaring his statement of purpose: "I don’t wear expensive clothes — ’cause they don’t really fit! I don’t drink expensive wine — ’cause it tastes like shit! Beer and rock and roll — is all I need!"

There are a bunch of reasons to love this quintessential neighborhood dive. There’s the red curtain in front of the stage, which the bands themselves have to pull shut at the end of every set. There’s the fancy backstage area, which is partly an alley behind Inman Square. There’s the sight of the grizzled townies who drink in the front bar rubbing shoulders with the punk types from the back room. There’s the frequent sight of Andrea Gillis, the extroverted booking agent and Red Chord frontwoman, outdancing everybody else in the audience. Most of all, there’s beer and rock and roll — two things that one can find cheap and in quantity.

Funky dungeons like the Abbey have been around for as long as there’s been a Boston scene; the Abbey itself has been there since the end of Prohibition (and from the looks of things, so have a few of the patrons in the front room). It’s a step away from showcase clubs like the Middle East and T.T. the Bear’s Place, and even farther from the long arm of Clear Channel. The best places of this sort embrace their own musical style: there’s the loud rock that plays O’Brien’s in Allston, the Morphine family of bands who pitch their tent at the Lizard Lounge, the singer-songwriters who crowd Toad in Porter Square.

The Abbey’s claim to fame is its position as the hub of a neo-garage scene, one that draws equally from old and new school (prime example: the venerable Real Kids are set to play a Wednesday residency through October; up-and-coming rockers the Charms will do the same in November). Local heroes like Mr. Airplane Man, Asa Brebner, Caged Heat, and Kenne Highland (lately playing a tune called "Not Too Shabby at the Abbey") are part of the regular crowd. So are newer bands like Triple Thick and the Coffin Lids, who bring true-blue garage rock to folks who aren’t quite old enough to remember Cantones (or even the Rat). And the Abbey atmosphere feels like home to those who do remember those spots. As long-time DMZ and Downbeat 5 guitarist J.J. Rassler puts it, "Where else are you gonna see Christmas lights, an American flag, and bras on the wall?"

"This used to be the dart room," Gillis notes as she points out the dart board that still hangs in the club’s music room. Although she’s too young for Cantone’s, she’s been in the neighborhood long enough to remember when the 1369 was a jazz club (instead of a coffeehouse) and the Inn Square Men’s Bar stood where the expanded S&S Deli is now. "Inman Square used to be a great music scene, and it would be great to get that back. Everybody around here wants to see something beautiful happen. And this place sure ain’t beautiful, but it just so happens that the best bands in town play here."

One thing the Boston rock circuit hasn’t seen in a long while is an R&B band with a female singer who rips it up in Joplin/Tina Turner fashion. Gillis fits the mold with a voice that’s raspy, brassy, and pretty damn sexy at times. Like a good live set, Red Chord’s CD Wicked (recorded at the Abbey in late 2000) builds intensity as it goes. There are some cooler ballads at the start, but by the time she gets to the self-explanatory "Rip Your Clothes Off," you can hear a "whooo" go up in the audience.

"That’s a pretty honest song about a guy I was angry with at the time. I felt better after writing it." Did the song help her love life? "Not really, because the guys are all scared of me anyway; they think all the Red Chord women are scary. Probably because we’re usually the last to leave a bar.

"I hear the Janis Joplin comparisons all the time, but I’m not really a huge fan of hers. She’s white and so am I; she loved Etta James and so do I." Gillis and keyboardist Andrea Gaudette formed Red Chord four years ago; they’ve lately been joined by Emily Grogan, a solo singer and guitarist of some note, here playing sax ("I hadn’t played saxophone since high school, but I had to give them a reason to let me in the band," she explains). Although Red Chord’s roots are strictly R&B, so far they’ve found most of their fans on the rock circuit. "Kind of weird, isn’t it?", Gillis says. "But we’re a little like punk rock because we make mistakes, we’re not perfect but we try to get an energy going between the crowd and us. I know that when I’m on stage, it’s the most excited I’ve ever felt." Now breaking in a new bassist, Red Chord are set to play acoustically at the neighboring Inman Square pub the Druid on October 16.

Two bands who’ve cut their teeth on Abbey gigs, Triple Thick and the Coffin Lids have a lot in common: they share a drummer (Jim Seary), a style, and an attitude. And they’ve both written odes to irresponsible living. The Coffin Lids have, of course, "Beer and Rock’n’Roll." Triple Thick have "Monday Night" (whose guitar lick is, I swear, pinched from BTO’s "Takin’ Care of Business" and whose chorus goes "Going out on a Monday night/Drink a whole lot of booze, start the week off right"). It opens their upcoming Triple Thick Hits Bottom (on their own Leisure King label), which sports 10 songs in a big 23 minutes and a cover that shows the band in a passed-out state.

If you’re headed that way yourself, you’d probably want to hear the kind of three-chord, hook-heavy songs the band dish out. At a recent Abbey show, they worked in covers from mid-’60s England and late-’70s Boston (the Who’s "Mary-Anne with the Shaky Hands" and the Nervous Eaters’ "Loretta"), plus a bunch of originals that could have come from either setting. In keeping with the band’s desire to rock as much as possible, Hits Bottom is their fourth release (three albums and an EP) since April 2001 — a strategy, I suggest, that might undercut sales of each disc. "It’s true, we put out way too many records, says singer/guitarist Mitch Murphy (Itai Halevi is on bass; Rock Bottom guitarist Charles Hansen is a part-time member). "But then, we don’t press too many copies of ’em." So how to explain the band’s prolific nature? "Short-attention span. We play the kind of music that our friends want to see. I don’t consider us that original. There’s loads of bands out there that never talk about their influences — the point is, can they pick out the good stuff? I grew up on all those Throbbing Lobster records [the mid-’80s Boston label], and I’m glad you can see people play that kind of music. I think our songs are pretty focused — booze, sex, and nightly misadventures."

Add a bit of Cramps-inspired ghoulishness to that equation and you’d have the Coffin Lids, who are indeed set to play the Abbey on October 31. Mike Feudale, who’s also the frontman of the rockabilly band the Speed Devils, thinks the two styles aren’t that far apart. "It’s rock and roll any way you cut it, though you can find the so-called Nazis in every genre. There’s no rhyme or reason we’d be having a garage revival, but I’m glad I’m seeing it happen. Some people think it’s old hat, but that’s fine — especially since I’m coming from the rockabilly scene, and that’s even older-hat."

MIKEY DEE’S 40TH. There are at least two reasons that Mikey Dee’s 40th-birthday show at the Kirkland Café this Saturday will be notable. First, one of Dee’s favorite bands, hard-driving popsters the Barnies, are playing their first show in eight years (along with Baby Ray, current home of Barnies bassist Pete Sutton and drummer Nathan Logus). Second, Dee himself will be there. The much-liked WMFO DJ, writer, and scenester suffered a stroke that left him bedridden four years ago; he’s been recovering at a frustratingly slow pace, but recovering just the same.

"He still can’t talk or move much, but he can laugh," Sutton reports. "I saw him last week and he was roaring at my various caterwaulings." Friendship with Dee is largely responsible for reuniting the Barnies (whose third member, guitarist Avram Gleitsman, recently wrote a bunch of songs for the Blue Man Group). "It’s gonna be one of those bittersweet but fun one-shot reunions. Can’t believe it’s been eight years. We just started rehearsing, and believe me, there’s nothing more depressing than us not being able to remember the parts that we wrote."

Issue Date: October 3 - 10, 2002
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