Friday night’s showcase at Mohawk was one of my favorite functions. Hosted by indie record label Ecstatic Peace, it featured a headline performance by label founder Thurston Moore, long-time Sonic Youth guitarist and living mop-topped rock encyclopedia. Forgoing his feedback-heavy, noise-based roots, Moore’s acoustic (!) set was pretty — even delicate. Joined on stage by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley (billed as a “special guest”) Moore debuted new, unreleased songs called “Friend,” “Frozen Guitar,” “The Shape” and “Silver.” By the last song, however, Moore couldn’t resist the urge to jam out, incorporating snippets of favorites such as the Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog” into a loud swirling, trippy climax.
Moore’s label-mates, Pagoda, are best known for having actor Michael Pitt as its lead singer. Pitt recently played the lead in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a film based on speculation surrounding the last few days in the life of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s singer and a God-like cultural icon. I thought the movie was mostly tedious and boring as hell, but Pitt is riveting on-screen and on-stage. Actually, it’s so easy to be distracted by Pitt’s Cobainesque guttural caterwaul that audiences might miss some of the best ingredients in the band’s sound. First of all, they have an amazing cellist who seems to think he’s playing an electric guitar. His hands alternately caress and attack the cello viciously, creating an explosive noise that’s very different than what you would expect from the usually snooze-inducing instrument. Overall, Pagoda sounded a little like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a bit like Sonic Youth and fully like the second coming of grunge. But in the good way, I swear.
A cover-band concert is like a drag queen: The show is familiar, predictable and includes the performer’s personal flair. But a tribute-band gig is more like a transgendered person, in that it’s trying to “pass” and mimic the features that would identify it as the band it’s honoring. In all cases, the illusion usually works best when seen across a smoky bar. Lithium: A Tribute to Nirvana plays convincing covers that span the length of Nirvana’s career — from the sludge of Bleach to the glorious chaos of In Utero. The band members themselves don’t much look like Nirvana, but their clothing, stage setup and attempts to stay in character more than make up for it. Lithium’s bassist bounds around barefoot, and the singer sports Cobain’s shoulder-length blond bob and iconic green grandpa sweater.