Sold out shows at the Grog Shop are kind of a bad deal for short people, as evidenced by the above photo. Sure, the most important aspect of a show is the sound (and this is where the sold out status was a benefit as the bodies absorbed some of the typically enthusiastic Grog Shop sound mixing), but there is a certain disconnect from the energy of a show when you can’t see what’s going on onstage. And you tend to miss some of the fun.
Opener Damion Suomi, who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, set to charming the audience immediately, which can be more than half the battle for an opening act. During the course of one song, the subject of our infamous burning river came up, making Cleveland-virgin Suomi stop and comment a verse later, “I’m sorry: you just cheered your river catching fire.” Yep, welcome to Cleveland.
Suomi has a pretty direct, simple American sound that sometimes pulls elements from Irish music. It is not, however, a painted-on Irish atmosphere, some of the elements being used very subtly, and seems to be a part of Suomi’s core as I observed that the character of his voice was very much like what Glen Hansard would sound like if stripped of his native accent.
Sets were kept tight, and there was some of the quickest band change-out that I’ve ever seen to accommodate the opener and two headliners.
Cleveland loves Man Man. Cleveland also loves Murder by Death. They each move the crowd, in different ways. Man Man hold a pill-popping, dancing until you fall/knock everyone else over appeal. While MbD hold a “raise an arm in the air, put the other arm around the person next to you, and sing to the sky as family forever, at least for tonight” appeal. (I was being slightly hyperbolic when I had this thought early in the MbD set, but then saw that very thing happen during their closing number, “The Devil Drives”, as the crowd sang that there was “still time to start again”.)
As expected, Man Man hit the stage hard and weird, applying their substantial muscle to songs like “Top Drawer”, “Pirahnas Club”, and “Engrish Bwudd”. While I couldn’t see everything, there were glimpses of a grey alien mask, a spangly purple cape, and confetti. The Man Man crew are clearly great and imaginative musicians, the constant brisk pace of their set led to a little listener fatigue at times. Not that the crowd that had formed a pit in front of the stage and were making the floor bounce noticed. Still, you can’t get a much better eye-opener at the end of a long, tiring day than this energetic, funky, eclectic Philadelphia band.
During their set, Murder by Death singer Adam Turla mentioned that Suomi had introduced him to Mike Polk’s brilliant “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism” videos. He mentioned, specifically, the closing line, “At least we’re not Detroit!” “The funny part is,” Turla commented, “I’m from Detroit.” But, he admitted, we did have a point.
MbD opened with “I Came Around” from their latest album Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon before charting a winding course through their career, picking up songs like “Brother”, “Ball & Chain”, and “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shavin’ With a Knife)” along the way. And what struck me the strongest, and what I keep coming back to with this band again and again, was the mood and emotion. Even in a crowded, grungy rock club, surrounded by the loud and the drunk, these songs hit as true an emotional chord as they do on recordings listened to in solitude.