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Clubland: Reflections on year of music, eager for more

  • Rob Severson of Googolplexia, based in St. Louis, Mo.

    Rob Severson of Googolplexia, based in St. Louis, Mo.

  • Googolplexia photo by Ann K. Hubbard

    Googolplexia photo by Ann K. Hubbard

  • Rob Severson of Googolplexia, based in St. Louis, Mo.
  • Googolplexia photo by Ann K. Hubbard

It’s a new year and a Ray Mason lyric is going through my head: “Daily planner and a big ol’ clock / two best gifts that I ever got.” I’d be lost without my daily planner — not just to make note of promising concerts already scheduled for 2013 (like Big Dipper on 1/31, The Residents on 2/8, and Stew and the Negro Problem on 2/13, all at the Iron Horse), but also to jog the memory about some of the best shows I saw in the old year.

Singer/songwriter/illustrator Jeffrey Lewis played a solo gig back in February at the intimate and hidden-away Flying Object space in Hadley. He writes songs that are equally clever and heartfelt, and his newish tune “Time Trades” was an immediate favorite for me, a song I’ve returned to throughout the year.

It’s a gentle, catchy melody that revolves around this basic thought: “Time is gonna take so much away / but there’s a way that time can offer you a trade / you gotta do something that you can get better at / ‘cause that’s the only thing that time will leave you with.” The NYC-based Lewis rolled in on a cold night with just his acoustic guitar and played for about 60 people packed into the homey venue, sitting on folding chairs gathered around his corner of the room.

“I’m huge in Hadley,” he said wryly, and for one song stood on his own folding chair so the whole place could see his accompanying flip book of illustrations, hand-drawn on an oversize pad. As he sang a cappella (“The Space Alien’s Bright Idea”), he held the spine against his chest and turned the pages like a teacher reading a story to a kindergarten class. Hopefully Lewis will return to the area soon.

The Psychedelic Furs show at the Iron Horse in May was a revelation — I liked the band fine in its ‘80s heyday, but lead vocalist Richard Butler, his bass-playing brother Tim and the rest of the group put on a big-sized show in a small-sized venue (small compared to the capacity of the venues the Furs usually play). Though they’ve been at it for over three decades, there was zero phoning it in from the Butlers and their band.

Richard was fit and chipper, wrenching his microphone stand into various positions for him to lean on and gesticulate while the musicians around him — including awesome saxophone man Mars Williams (it was his birthday that night) — powered through great hit songs (“Pretty In Pink,” “Love My Way”) and nearly-as-great deep cuts (“Only You & I” and the hypnotic early track “India”).

Super fans were there in high numbers, waving around copies of old LPs, singing along, and Richard was just as spirited. It was a stadium-esque show in a cozy room, a party to remember.

Another “perfect storm” kind of concert was the Jerry Garcia 70th birthday tribute at the Iron Horse in July. More than 20 local performers took turns fronting a house band that included the very Garcia-inspired guitar work of Bruce Mandaro and event organizer/Grateful Dead fan/drummer Brian Marchese.

Lovers of Jerry and the Dead lined up outside early, then tumbled in and filled the dance floor before the show even began; it made for a magically supportive, electric atmosphere, no matter who was on stage. There were a lot of highlights, including Fancy Trash rocking “Sugaree” and Jason Bourgeois’ groovy take on “Deal,” which left me wondering how I’d never heard the song before and, once home, doing some research as to what album the original song was on.

And blowing minds at Flywheel in October was Googolplexia, a one-man band from St. Louis, Mo. The man was Rob Severson, who ignored the stage, strapped on a headset microphone and roamed around the room of standing onlookers, often singing a cappella — not in a street-corner doo-wop or prime-time TV way, but stream-of-consciously switching between lead, instrument noises, sound effects and spoken asides, like a little kid might do.

While a roving, ranting performer might come off as aggressive or terrifying (especially if you’re a wallflower), Severson was never in anyone’s face. Just good-natured, kind of weird, in his own hyper zone, very funny, and with memorable tunes, sometimes accompanying himself on accordion or distorted ukulele.

It takes guts and skill to create an off-the-cuff set that hangs together — and Severson began with an obviously improvised shaggy dog song, spoken-sung with preacher’s fervor, which culminated in a sudden punch line that explained the mythical (and wonderfully untrue) origin of how Flywheel got its name.

I was won over immediately, and when he got to his folk-calypso sing-along “Daniel’s Beers,” any wallflower tendencies melted away thanks to the silliness and sheer catchiness of joining in with Mr. Googolplexia as he rocked out with his ukulele. A consummate (and one of a kind) performer.

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