Who: Sugar & The Plums w/My Fifty-Five
Where: Vincent’s Ear
When: Saturday, Dec. 20
In that weird mood that follows a good show, I approached Sugar & The Plums bassist Eamon Martin and demanded to know the score.
“Have you been picking your bass with a credit card?” I inquired.
“No,” revealed Eamon, reaching into his wallet to find the thin, blue rectangle of plastic. “It’s my mom’s old welfare card.”
“Jesus!” I said. “It’s a shame you’re in a country band, because that’s the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever seen.”
True to form, Sugar & The Plums aren’t exactly paying homage to classic country — instead, they seem to want to scratch the whole thing out and start over again: This alt-country nonsense is all wrong, The Plums seem to say. Let’s just pretend that America learned to play twang-rock from The Pogues.
More accurately, Sugar & The Plums sound like what would have happened had the whole East Coast alt-country movement fatally tumbled off the Blue Ridge Mountains at the end of its blind race out of Nashville.
Sugar & The Plums are exactly like that, only they don’t have to say it. They just are it.
The rhythm section, with Eamon joined by local improv actor Matt Shepard portraying the drum-smacking beat-keeper, is flawless. The tempos are urgent, the songs vaulting over alt-country and landing firmly on the ground of modern garage-rock.
The group’s twang is a dual force of backing banjo and perfectly placed slide guitar, provided by familiar local-music faces Michael Goode and Jeremy Power, respectively. There’s just a hint of both — but never so much as to make you sick after a few helpings.
And then there’s the band’s ripest Plum: former Makeout Room leader Gabe Johnson, whose pleasantly harsh, unapologetically nasal voice is worth its considerable weight in guitar solos. Johnson is a canny front man in his own right, aggressively charismatic and vocally kinetic, and his performance alone is capable of carrying a show.
But, to his credit, he’s set aside the room-filling presence of his onstage ego to play back-up to another band member’s persona — that of Sugar. Or, if you prefer, Kate “Sugar” MacCurdy.
MacCurdy matches all Johnson’s vocal rawness and heart, and she’s just as heartbreakingly dark and deceptively smooth as he is, too. MacCurdy follows Johnson’s vocals into shadowed alleys, twangy street fights and booze-reeking, auditory love affairs that end up feeling as dirty in a country song as an orgy would in a church basement.
True, not everything quite came together at the band’s most recent Vincent’s Ear show: Johnson broke strings on his electric guitar and had to switch to acoustic. And the club’s muddy sound system sometimes caused the banjo and slide guitar to wash each other out, while similarly afflicting Johnson’s and MacCurdy’s vocals.
The band gave an encore — an upbeat novelty song detailing how “it’s OK to hump your friends” — that came off, well, anticlimactic.
Still, it was a grandly entertaining show all around: A roomful of cheap-beer swillers became so many silence-stunned new fans — a fruitful indicator of things to come for Sugar and her fantastic Plums.