Throughout the second half of the 1990s, Washington, DC’s The Make-Up left few listeners ambivalent to their highly conceptual rumination upon exceedingly energetic small-scale rock ‘n’ roll, the band specializing in a quasi-religious catharsis as expressed through a flamboyant combination of style and ideology. Their ideas always connected with the sharpest clarity while they were in performance, and on 9/20 they returned to the Black Cat for an exceptional hometown one-night stand.
By this point, all but the most strident hardliners on the subject have made their peace with the phenomenon of indie-rock reunions. I’ll admit that when this tendency first began hitting the news pages of all the expected websites, I was at first surprised, then suspicious. A lot has happened since those initial bands returned to stages and studios and with the expected mixed results, but the successes have prodded so many others to follow suit that the impulse is now in essence unavoidable.
And due to this inevitability, whenever a spate of once neglected or lingeringly pertinent groups announces the intention to rekindle their long dormant artistic flame, these subjects should naturally be looked upon on a case-by-case basis. This means resisting the urge for cynicism of which we are all capable and considering what each band brings to the turntable or the club with ears as open as possible.
Of course, everyone’s going to have their personal idiosyncrasies on the issue. My own main foible on the subject of reunions relates to recordings of new material (of which I am largely in favor) against high dollar live shows (of which I generally am not). It’s basically impossible to deny that the vast majority of reunions that have came down the line in the last dozen or so years are at least partially (and in some cases extremely) motivated by monetary gain. And again, all but the harshest observers are to varying degrees cool with this fact. But when bands steer a wide path from the studio while navigating a touring cash-cow behemoth, I can’t deny getting a little bit bugged; in fact, an album title from the Mothers of Invention springs to mind.
Obviously there will be exceptions, such as The Make-Up’s performance last Thursday at Washington DC’s Black Cat. Revived after a roughly twelve year stretch of inactivity essentially to play the highly regarded festivals of All Tomorrow’s Parties, they hit ATP venues this past May in London and this past weekend in Manhattan. But before heading up to NYC, the band booked a sensibly inexpensive show in the city of their origin and in the club that was most hospitable to the music of their very productive first go-round.
Across that ’95-’00 stretch, The Make-Up’s focal point was the electrifying presence and vocal intensity of Ian Svenonius as spurred on by guitarist/keyboardist James Canty, bassist Michelle Mae, and drummer Steve Gamboa. They just happened to release some rather considerable records during that same span, though as testimony to their performance prowess I’ve long considered their best disc to be The Make-Up After Dark, one of their two legitimate live albums.
But if a fantastic live unit, The Make-Up was also exceedingly concerned with consistency of concept and image, and this extended to where they played and who they played with; the atmosphere of the band’s live shows was noted for far transcending the normal level of consumer transaction. They combined the high-congress of ‘60s youth culture with the intensity of ’77-punk (or if you prefer, the lean and sharply-dressed power-blast that is the early work of that era’s high-modsters The Jam) with an exhibition of self-described gospel fervor, the band preaching a message of revolutionary love to their marginalized peer group.
So, instead of the soundman’s unimaginative playlist pumping through the PA system, you could reliably count on a show by The Make-Up to feature a debonair hepcat spinning tunes that the majority of the event’s attendees simply hadn’t heard before. And this night was no different, the sounds coming courtesy of the great Kid Congo Powers, he of The Gun Club, Cramps, Bad Seeds, and Pink Monkey Birds.
Indeed, much of Powers’ magic in the DJ booth floated onto the floor of the club like a green mist that was similar to the fog produced by the unrefined jewels found on those absolutely killer Songs the Cramps Taught Us bootleg volumes; there was boldly honking sax, bodacious R&B, sterling garage belting, zonked post-rockabilly manna, odes to manic gorillas, and Popeye the Sailor and with just an occasional hint of vinyl crackle as the needle spun on a sweet mess of rescued 45s.
Kid later progressed into a sprinkling of stuff from the early punk era, and as his selections were unveiled throughout the evening I recognized a few but was pleasantly stumped by far more; that’s exactly what a DJ set of this sort should do. In summation, it was inspired work from the estimable mind and truly deep collection of Mr. Powers.
However, the first act to hit the stage on this evening was Coup Sauvage & the Snips, and if they diverted sharply from the indie-rock standard of opening acts with loud guitars, bass and drums, this detour fit right into The Make-Up’s ideological strategy. The outfit’s nicely extroverted gal vocal-group R&B not only blended superbly with tough programmed beats and live keys/bass, but they also integrated a wide diversity of precedent into a hotly delivered whole. Here’s a list of just some of what sprung to mind through Coup Sauvage & the Snips’ set: LaBelle, a femme-fronted Furious Five, prime disco ala Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, the early Pointer Sisters, Cameo crossed with Gary Numan, early-‘80s LA electro (Egyptian Lover!) and ‘70s Diana Ross.
Along the way they made it perfectly clear they were a hometown band, even performing a tune in tribute to nearby Laurel, MD (described by wonderfully confident leader Kristina Sauvage as the home of racetracks, police brutality, and Biz Markie) that came with an accompanying dance. The Laurel Shuffle was easy to learn, and fun at that. Later that night at their side of the merch table, the group sold buttons and temporary tattoos but had no recordings, and while they are a young act I’m not the slightest bit surprised.
For Coup Savage & the Snips are aptly described as the music of the sweaty summer street fair, the late-night club show and the over-packed house party, their sounds born from and representative of their community. So maybe the best compliment I can give is to praise their set as an extreme rarity in this age of global connectivity; they resonate like a group that’s existence is impossible to imagine blossoming anywhere other than the District of Columbia.
The first thing I noticed as The Make-Up took the stage was that Steve Gamboa wasn’t in the drum seat. His place was taken by Mark Cisneros, last seen by this observer playing in the terribly undersung DC band Medications. But any doubts the shift in lineup might’ve inspired were quickly dispelled, as the quartet ripped into a scorching set that was the equal of any I witnessed during their previous tenure.
They opened with “Wade in the Water”, the tune immediately reestablishing Ian’s proclivity for deft crowd-rousing through well-nicked gospel-soul moves. Make no mistake, the whole raison d’être of The Make-Up is performance, and in many ways they served as a corrective to a fallacy of DIY that has plagued the music scene since way back before punk broke.
Specifically, while the idea of Do It Yourself surely encourages that “anybody can do it”, this doesn’t mean the mass of hypothetical anybodies should represent themselves as a bunch of unremarkable individuals that just happen to be engaged in the act of music making. To elaborate, this tendency in opposition to the supposed ogre of “rock-star” behavior has unfortunately resulted in a mammoth backlog of undistinguished recordings.
The Make-Up is the antithesis of band-shirt clad “regular guy” indie-rock. Their reputation was made on a theatricality that could elevate to a sublime spectacle, though naysayers (i.e. haters) consistently derided them as a put-on, a shtick. But in front of a spirited, encouraging crowd last Thursday they again transcended the possible pitfalls of ambition and knocked out a set of favorites from across the span of their underappreciated discography.
This meant reliable rockers like “Blue is Beautiful,” “They Live by Night,” and “Untouchable Sound.” All three songs are plum showcases for why this band is far more than just a vehicle for Svenonius; Canty’s guitar continues to combine simplicity and velocity into an powerful package, Mae’s bass playing is as in-the-pocket as ever, and Cisneros was easily up to the task of throwing-down the band’s freak-beat inspired rhythmic simplicity.
And along with Ian’s righteous shout-out to Beltsville, MD’s Butch Willis (he of The Rocks and “TVs from Outer Space”) there was the funky angularity of “We’re Having a Baby,” revved-up sing-alongs like “I Want Some,” and “Every Baby (Cries the Same),” and inevitably a mid-set showcase of the tune that grew into their live signature, “We Can’t Be Contained.”
In many ways this song, particularly as delivered by the band “in concert,” is the litmus test that separates the fans of The Make-Up from the detractors, Svenonius navigating a slow-build of church-derived testifying that erupts numerous times into a dynamic punk-drenched James Brown/Prince-channeled mania, his wiry frame raised above the crowd by members of the throng. This doesn’t leave much room for indifference, natch. But that’s one benefit of a reunion gig; it’s fairly assured the assembled will almost entirely be made up of “believers.”
So, naturally the band came out for a fabulous encore. And the assembled pumped boisterously for a second revisit to the stage, but ‘twas not to be. After some thought that shrewd bit of denial actually makes perfect sense. For during their initial five-year stand The Make-Up proved pretty expert at giving their fans an abundance of Gospel Yeah-Yeah while simultaneously leaving them wanting more; it’s only fitting that in culminating this unexpected and most outstanding return, they’d do the same.