Last night’s show at The Orange Peel featured The Wallflowers, who are recently back from a playing/touring/recording hiatus. And, while that band looked and sounded as good as ever (and played hits like “Three Marlenas” and “6th Avenue Heartache”) the evening’s surprises were in its openers.
A last minute lineup addition started a few minutes before 9 p.m., with the Wallflowers’ keys player Rami Jaffee, local singer-songwriter Gary Jules and other musicians jamming on songs like Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere” and Tears For Fears’ “Mad World,” (which Jules covered for the Donnie Darko soundtrack).
Following a very quick set change, Nashville’s Luella and the Sun took the stage and with nothing more than a few bass notes as introduction, launched into “Fly So Free.” The band (drummer John Radford, guitarist Joe McMahan, bassist Adam Bednarik and vocalist Melissa Mathes, aka Luella) is based in gospel and blues. And by based I mean deeply steeped. Steeped to a bitter and pungent brew.
“Fly So Free” is a perfect example of exactly how Luella and the Sun deconstructs Gospel, distills its soulful essence and uses that to infuse raw, gritty garage rock with an unholy wildness that feels as righteous as it is dangerous. It’s something about the muscle of the drum, the hypnotic thrum of the bass and the snarl of the guitar. And the auxiliary percussion, rattling and hissing like a basket of serpents.
But mostly it’s Mathes’ voice. At turns girlish and haunting, pure and feral, she doesn’t sing so much as uses her voice like a whip. Or a lasso. Or a spinning top. Hers is a good voice. A great voice. But she doesn’t sing with the care and preciousness of a great singer. She sings, instead, like she’s on fire. Like she’s exorcising demons.
The band moved through a stripped-down number of fast handclaps over which Mathes spat lyrics and danced savagely in her dress of shimmering plastic six-pack rings (McMahan looked formidably handsome in a red and black smoking jacket) and moved on to “Light in the Sky.” That song was even more mesmerizing and voodoo-dark, and textured with feedback and raga-like chord progressions.
Fast songs, like the galloping, shimmying “Train Train,” showcase the barely-contained frenzy that Luella and the Sun holds at its nucleus. But in slower offerings, like the gorgeously agonized “Ruler of My Heart” (an Irma Thomas cover) and the end-of-the-party slow dance, “Universe of My Heart,” the group can stretch out and fully explore each note, each nuance. It was in the latter that, while the range and lithe ability of Mathes’ vocal was lost on the antsy crowd, she really let her voice go to this high and airy place, reaching for artistry and emotion instead of pop polish.
Luella and the Sun closed out its set with a cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “We Got To Meet Death One Day.” A slow opening morphed quickly into heavy stomp played nasty and spooky, building in its fierce swagger until, at the final moments, the instruments fell away leaving only Mathes’ voice floating like a pretty apparition through the air.
Photos by Rich Orris