The Vaselines Lube Up and Penetrate Seattle
Somehow, I had completely forgotten about The Vaselines coming to Seattle. I knew about the show, but forgot that the date was coming up so quickly until I was reminded by an email from Sound Magazine. I would be cutting it close by sending a press request to our contact at the venue, so I entered Sound‘s contest by replying to the email and won the tickets. We’ve given away a handful of tickets this year and get passes to review concerts regularly, but there’s just something about “winning” the tickets. I don’t think I’ve actually “won” anything through a random contest since I was about 7 or 8 years old. I peeled back a decal in a Chips Ahoy! “Betcha Bite a Chip” contest to reveal 2 chocolate chips. The prize was a mini-set of Kinex; not enough to really build anything. This prize turned out to be a hell of a lot more satisfying.
Doors opened at 8pm but, walking from downtown, I didn’t even reach Neumos until almost 9. It didn’t matter, the place was still dead. I headed over to the park to meet Sean Prince who was involved in a giant game of dodge ball on the tennis court. It started to rain, we walked over to his truck and met with two others, they all took swigs off a bottle of Evan Wiliams, and we went back to the venue. At 9:30 nothing had started. It was still too early to tell what the turn out would be like. When the opening band, Hallways, finally hit the stage, they looked almost too “perfect”. Everyone was sporting their 1970s rock revival gear to a “T“. They had an attractive young female on keys center-stage and I imagined the game of psych-rock/paper/scissors that they must have played, prior to the show, to determine which of the guys would get to wear the customary Western button up. The bass player “won”. The vocalist/guitarist/front-man had a quintessential Gram Parsons haircut and his little medallions were exposed by the unfastened top buttons on his shirt. The minute he entered the stage, Sean Prince looked at me and said, “Oooh. Sexy Rocker.“ During the first song, the group had an accomplice in the crowd who was pulling confetti from a satchel and tossing it up into the air. This would take place at key points of the song and turned the audience into a little ticker-tape parade. I tried to give it a chance, but I wasn’t impressed and this corny antic drove us out of the main room and into the arms of the adjacent MOE Bar. There’s always that possibility that they wound up turning into the greatest band in the world, but I doubt it and I didn’t have it in me to stick around and find out.
The Vaselines were formed by Eugene (aka: Eugenius) Kelly and Frances Mckee of Glasgow, Scotland in 1986. The two were a couple at the time and their collaboration as songwriters grew naturally out of their relationship and the amount of time that they spent around eachother. With the help of their friend and label owner of, now defunkt, 53rd & 3rd, Stephen McRobbie (The Pastels), the group entered the studio for the first time ever. They recorded two EPs and finally released their one and only full-length LP, Dum-Dum (Rough Trade), in 1989. It was pressed to only 1,000 copies. As naturally as it was formed, the group separated the week that the album was released, fueled by the dissolution of McKee and Kelly‘s romantic involvement itself. By all accounts, that should have been the end of it.
Over the last 20 years their lives went on. McKee trained to become a schoolteacher and Kelly worked on other projects. They were pulled from obscurity after being championed by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who covered their songs on Incesticide and their MTV Unplugged performance, and SUBPOP released a compilation of their work, The Way of The Vaselines, back in 1992. They did a one-off performance opening for Nirvana when they came to Glasgow, but then quickly returned back to their lives. Last year, The Vaselines came to the US for their first tour in the states and played the SUBPOP 20th anniversary performance at Marymoor Park. Now it’s 20 years after their breakup and The Vaselines return to the city of their second birth, coupled with SUBPOP‘s new deluxe-edition reissue of their work titled, Enter The Vaselines.
The Vaselines took the stage as a 5 piece. Along with drummer Michael McGaughrin (1990s/V-Twin), the two guitarists were joined by bassist, Bobby Kildea, and a 3rd guitar manned by Stevie Jackson, both of Belle and Sebastian fame. McKee was wearing a cute little red dress over her jeans, with large white flowers around the hem. Kelly had on a paisley bandana tied around his neck like a reverse ascot. The club had filled up nicely and was sufficiently packed by this point. When they kicked off their set with “Son of A Gun“, I was crammed over by an in-wall bar, along with Jon Auer from The Posies. The band already sounded amazing, so I slid past Auer to get a closer view.
The second song that they played was “Monster Pussy“. They’ve claimed that the song is about a cat that Frances once had, but The Vaselines are known for their innuendos. Before the song, Kelly reiterated that it was about McKee‘s “pussy“, followed by “sometimes she’d let me stroke it, and sometimes she wouldn’t.” After “Monster Pussy” ended, Eugenius introduced the next song with, “This is all about thinking you’re a horse. Okay, it’s all about taking LSD and thinking you’re a horse. This is a true story“. That’s when they played “The Day I Was a Horse“. The bass player from the opening act was invited on stage to squeeze the bicycle horn from the “Molly’s Lips” chorus. Frances warned that he had only had one practice and urged the crowd to “give him a break if he fucks up“.
They said that they hoped that “no one showed up expecting the young kids from the poster“, while Mckee further joked that Eugene had been caught up with the Hare Krishnas, that they had shaved his head, and that the band had to rescue and deprogram him. They kicked into the upbeat “Oliver Twisted” before playing a new track called “Picked a Cherry“, “just to prove (they) haven’t been lazy bastards for the last 20 years.” McKee cautioned the audience by suggesting that everyone hold their applause until after they actually played it, but it fit seamlessly into the rest of their repertoire, with it’s alternating vocals and harmonizing in the chorus. In fact, the only thing that has held up better than Frances McKee’s porcelain face was The Vaselines’ music.
McKee still has the same childlike breathy vocals that she did in the 80‘s, which sound as if Nico was placed delicately through a pitch-shifter. It’s a vocal delivery that was employed endlessly, post-Vaselines, and one that over-saturated a large portion of the K-Records catalog throughout the 90s. I do love the old recordings but, in all honesty, they actually sounded remarkably better at this show than any of the originals. Both of their voices, as well as their overall musicianship, has improved through their 20 year absence. Don’t ask me why, but it has. I’ve seen reunion shows before and am well aware that The Vaselines are somewhat of a “nostalgia” act, but it didn’t feel that way at all. When I saw The Pixies a few years back, they sounded really solid, but there was something awkward about it. There always is. When bands break out a new track after being separated for years, it’s usually painful. It wasn’t this time. The banter, stage presence, delivery…everything, seemed beyond perfect and natural. They are some kind of anomaly. The Scots must have the technology because, they have been rebuilt better, stronger, and wittier. Nothing seemed forced.
Eugene segued into “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” by announcing that it was about the Lord Jesus Christ and then followed it up by stating that Jesus is actually a bit of a “cunt“. “I asked him for a bike for Christmas. What did I get? Fuckin’ Monopoly.” Frances offered up an alibi for her time away from music by claiming that she had been in prison. She also talked about rubbing the semen from little boys on her face as a skin treatment. They whipped out the their raunchy guitar chops for “Lovecraft” and then into the bluesy psych riffs of the song “Bitch“. McKee asked if anyone would be willing to marry her so that she could move to America and hands shot up. Although she is already married, she said that she would consider Mormonism and that she wouldn’t mind being part of a harem. At this point, it was time for them to play another new song (featured below). Like the previous new song that they had offered, it was surprisingly good. If The Way of the Vaselines was put through a age-progression for missing children, I imagine that it would have sounded just like this. Their sound has progressed and matured tremendously. I was left eager to hear more fresh material from them in the future.
They jumped the gun on the setlist by playing “Slushy” next, so afterwards, they backtracked to play “Teenage Superstars“. They finished up their set with “Let’s Get Ugly“, “No Hope“, “Sex Sux (Amen), and the J. Spaceman-style heavy guitar jams of “Dying For It“, before leaving the stage. The encore started with “Rory Rides Me Raw“, their suspiciously sexual song about “Frances’ Bike” named “Rory“. Earlier in the show, Kelly had said that, although Frances is great with double-entendres, he’s still only good with the “single-entendre“. The next track that they performed was their discotheque version of the Divine cover, “You Think You’re A Man“, for which they turned on the disco ball and went Studio 54 on the joint. They closed the show with the driving rhythms of “Dum-Dum“, the title track from their original full-length LP. The Vaselines thanked SUBPOP and Nirvana for helping out their careers and expressed their pleasant surprise at the incredible turnout. As the audience spilled out of the doors and dissipated, everyone seemed to be expressing their equally pleasant surprise at the quality of their performance. Among the stragglers left on the mostly-vacated cement floor was label-mate Jemaine Clemente (Flight of the Conchords), who had performed down the street at The Paramount Theatre, earlier that night.
I’m sure that it’s apparent how impressed I was by The Vaselines performance and that I would recommend for anyone to see them if they get the opportunity. They delivered more than anyone expected that night; even more than I think that they may have even realized, through their humble and organic return to music. I hadn’t thought much about the opening act, Hallways, until I began writing this review, but I’ve noticed something interesting about the contrast between the two groups. I didn’t stay for their set but a few things stood out, simply based on what I have seen and what I do know. If you look at the Hallways myspace page, you will find a bio focused around the “romance” between their front man and keyboard player. They speak of their deep musical content and professionalism. They make implications to their future as artists. There are pictures of them staring dramatically into each others’ eyes and home made promotional photos that look like they were peeled from Fairport Convention album covers. The Vaselines, on the other hand, never seemed to focus too hard on their future. They’ve never made any inflated claims about their musical ability/inspirations and they come off appearing ego-less and effortless. Kelly and McKee‘s music always felt real which, in many ways, can be even more important than originality. Both today, as well as their first time around, they seem content at where they are in their lives and careers, and it comes through in their sound. Some bands focus on their approach, their image, their packaging- everything. They live vicariously through a predetermined concept of rock stardom and musical credibility. Some even live vicariously through other time periods from the past and model everything after those ideas. Don’t get me wrong, such determination and motivation are actually quite admirable qualities. The irony that I found through this show, however, was that the band who actually WAS resurrected from the past came across as the freshest and most current of the two. There is a timelessness in their honesty and I believe that is where The Vaselines‘ strengths truly lie.
(Video featured above is from the Youtube account for Mattwong26. Check it out for more video clips from the show)