Another of my recent “post redundancy blues” musical discoveries, this band, and probably my favourite of the lot; let’s face it, with a name like Modern Baseball, I should like them! An intriguing write-up in a freebie mag picked up after the Titus Andronicus show, and a checkout of some fine YouTube clips (including the superb joyous amphetamine rush of current single “Wedding Singer”) prompted me to pick up the Philadelphia natives’ current album “Holy Ghost”, and glad I was of it! A superb set of short, snappy blasts of shiny punky powerpop (or powerpoppy punk, whatever), with crunchy, galloping guitars and garbling, angsty emo-lite lyrics delivered variously in an impassioned, Dashboard Confessional style, or an almost Philistines Jr. laconic drawl, it’s fast becoming a 2016 favourite. A possible Transatlantic cousin of similar recent discoveries, Durham’s Martha, then, and like that lot I resolved to catch Modern Baseball “live” at the earliest possible chance. Just missing out on an apparently sold-out Electric Ballroom gig (wow, this band really have passed me by), I was however quick to jump on tix for this post-Reading Festival show, before this one sold out too!
Hit the road just before 5, encountering slow but moving traffic around Newport for once, and parking up at 7 behind the Grand Halls of Learning where my friend Craig (unavailable for this one) works, after a tea stop. A wander around to the Clwb revealed a queue and doors not yet open, so I popped into the adjacent Castle Emporium, where, ironically, a young band were playing a half-formed and unrehearsed but spunky and enthusiastic grungy rock set in a pop-up space. After 4 or 5 numbers, I excused myself and joined the large queue for Clwb entry at 8. Up the metal stairs to this claustrophobic and brick-lined room, which was smaller than I remembered – we’re 4 flights up but it feels like underground!
Grabbed a table space at the back to rest my knee as the place filled up rapidly with the young Mobo (!) massive, then openers Vicky Speedboat joined us at 8.30 for a solid set of yelping slacker/ grungy laze rock which featured a splendid yearning emo-rock opener with nice harmonies, then went a little sludgy proto HM in parts, but was overall played with honesty and openness. A song about a lost night in Newport, during their last sojourn to Wales, was the best of a good opening set. A subsequent chat with VS drummer Sean at the merch stand revealed he was actually the Modern Baseball sticksman pulling a double shift tonight! The Winter Passing were up in short order thereafter; an Irish band with a nuanced dual vocal attack from a brother and sister pairing, played over a poppier US 90’s alt-rock soundtrack, their occasional quiet/ loud dynamics recalled later period Magnapop, and some strutting riffery also resembled Veruca Salt. They closed out with their best number, “Daisy”, an insistent, soaring slab of powerpop with some fine bratty female vocals. Nice work!
I wandered down the front, extreme stage left, as the boys set up, then took the stage prompt at 10 to the introspective title track from the current “Holy Ghost” CD. We knew what to expect then, as they launched headlong into the brilliant galloping circular riff of “Wedding Singer”, and the kids went batshit crazy. An incendiary start, with momentum maintained by the muscular, undulating and building “Note To Self”. The reason for the two disparate vocal styles then became apparent, with the first 2 numbers being vocally dispatched by the laconic, bespectacled Jake, whilst his more bookish, baby-faced co-guitarist Brendan delivered the more impassioned vocals, particularly on older numbers such as “Fine, Great” and the wry, chant-along “Weekend”. “Tears Over Beers” was an early highlight, a cowpunk gallop with a gauche yet witty lyric, after which Brendan exhorted the crowd to “take two steps back – this guy’s [down the front] knees are killing him!” (Not me, someone else!)
The set varied between old and new material, and the distinction became evident; whilst the older material has a naïve, powerpoppy charm, recalling early Weezer or the excellent Surfer Blood in its insistent hookiness (evidenced by this knowledgeable young crowd singing along for much of the gig), for me the “Holy Ghost” songs represent a quantum step forward, being punchier, more immediate and dynamic, and could be the material which catapults them to a wider audience – their “Bleed American”, perhaps? The Hold Steady stream-of-consciousness of the nonetheless concise “Mass” was great, featuring an unexpected soaring harmony from kinetic and constantly-beaming bassist Ian, and “Re Do” broke out after a slow start into a frenzied gabble. A plug for the “Head Above The Waves” mental health charity revealed them as thoughtful and considerate human beings as well as a potentially great band in the making, and the set finale, the excellent, chiming and slow burn-to-crescendo “Just Another Face” was dedicated by Brendan to Vicky Speedboat mainman Will, with, “gee golly gosh, he’s such a wonderful person!” A moshpit-tastic “Your Graduation” was the encore punctuation to a splendid set of enthusiastically delivered US emo-powerpop rock, after which Sean kept a pre-set promise and delivered his set-list to me on his way offstage. Chap!
Hung around awhile afterwards, catching breath, thanking Sean for his integrity, being complimented on my Hold Steady t-shirt by Jake, and quickly chatting Mets baseball with bassist Ian (the only baseball fan in Modern Baseball! What’s up with that???!!!), before being ushered out by the bouncers, which necessitated a lengthy but ultimately fruitful wait outside for the final signature on my set-list from Brendan (who found it funny I referred to his bandmates as “your colleagues”…). Car at midnight, and home at 1.10 after a swift drive home on a clear motorway, reflecting on the performance. Great stuff from this young and still-developing band Modern Baseball; in gig terms, this was a loud moon-shot, a Green Monster-clearing home run!