Old ladies lurking on street corners wearing nothing but cut-up garbage bags and cowboy hats along with young teenagers pierced out and inked up to their jaw-lines are but some of the sights you will see along Santa Cruz's Pacific Avenue. Situated right on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the city is liberal with an in-your-face, open-minded attitude as prevalent as the fog that blankets it nightly. It is no wonder then that a near sold-out crowd was drawn to one of the last stops on the lengthy and long-awaited "Dark Romance" tour featuring Tiger Army in support of last year's excellent III: Ghost Tigers Rise LP.
After getting frisked by the pro wrestler-like bouncers with arms like telephone poles I made my way past the merch stand where business was nearly as brisk as it was at the bar…and people were knocking back drinks like camels at an oasis. Being an all-ages show, the crowd was diverse both in look and age. Old rockabilly greasers sporting engineer boots and Western shirts contrasted with the young hippy kids and Billie Joe wannabes complete with shaggy hair, dark eyeliner and ties. Shows in Santa Cruz attract very diverse crowds, not entirely unlike what is depicted in the opening scene of the 1987 film "The Lost Boys" where Sam and Michael arrive in "Santa Carla" (which is actually Santa Cruz).
Unfortunately, I had missed 12-Step Rebels, which was too bad because I had heard good things about them. A familiar voice filled the air as I stepped into the dimly lit black hall. It was Mike McColgan of Boston's Street Dogs halfway through "You Alone." Being a fan of and having not ever seen the Street Dogs, I was really looking forward to their set. It was back in 1997 at San Jose's infamous sewer hole The Cactus Club that I last heard McColgan sing with the Dropkick Murphys on their tour with the Business in support of Do Or Die. The Murphys' performance that night was explosive, igniting the club in a fiery inferno that to this day stands out among the thousands of other bands I've seen, indelibly etched into my memory. I can still remember the look on the bartender's face as he rushed over to help break up a violent fight involving various pieces of furniture which had erupted among a group of skinheads during "Never Alone." I always thought McColgan should have never left the music industry; his voice too good, and his stage presence is undeniably passionate and charismatic.
While it may be easy and logical in more than one regard to compare the Street Dogs to early Dropkick Murphys, the band stands on its own merit and is fantastic both musically and lyrically. The kids loved the band as they belted out song after song from 2005's Back To The World and 2003's Savin Hill. Proving the vast dynamic range in their repertoire, the band showcased slower material like "2 Bottles" and the faster, hardcore-inspired "Drink Tonight." "Fighter" was verbally prefaced by a dedication to a friend even though it is easily heard in the song's lyrics. "In Defense Of Dorchester," "Back To The World," and "Declaration" were thrown into the mix along with a full cover of the Ramones' "Commando." A brief cover of the Clash's "Bankrobber" led seamlessly into "Last Call" while short snippets of Rancid's "The War's End" and Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros' "Coma Girl" found their way into other songs. The band closed with their version of Sham 69's "Borstal Breakout." The Street Dogs performance warmed up the crowd nicely for the final band and was a very wise choice for support. It will not be too soon the next time I see the Street Dogs.
Sticking to a tight timeline and scheduled curfew, the club grew dark as the lights dimmed and the three members of Tiger Army ran on stage and grabbed their instruments. The crowd cheered wildly in anticipation as the familiar strumming of Nick 13's guitar provided the fuel for the fire. Soon, the strumming was joined by the thump of the bass as the band kicked the show off with "Ghost Tigers Rise." By the time the bass solo came around, the circle pit had become swollen with energy, engulfing floor space like voracious sharks swallowing a fresh kill. The pit continued, stopping only for a split second as the second song, "True Romance," off of 1999's self-titled album, began. The band slowed down the tempo but certainly not the energy after that with "Ghostfire" and the madness continued.
I was a bit concerned that the chemistry which had developed with Fred Hell and Geoff Kresge had changed Tiger Army's sound. Last year when I saw the band with this lineup the performance was top notch in all respects. I was glad to see and hear that the new lineup consisting of Jeff Roffredo on bass and James Meza on drums had Tiger Army sounding better than ever. The rhythm section was nice and tight, with the new members looking as if they had been playing the songs for years. Roffredo incited the crowd during songs like "FTW" and "Fog Surrounds." Meza's drumming was precise and appeared fluid and effortless. Unfortunately, the set was not without a problem.
Shortly after the band began to play, it became apparent that the sound was off. The bass was so loud that it rendered the other instruments -- and to an extent, the vocals -- difficult to hear. The bass was also muddy and lacked the low frequency definition that is prevalent on the band's recorded albums and in past live performances. Now, I enjoy the deep, clean bass that a stand-up provides, but not when it drowns out everything else in a one-noted sea of confusion. I thought maybe it might be my own ears, but then I began hearing other people around me complaining of the same thing in between songs. The problem was eventually rectified, but only after the beginning two-thirds of the set had transpired, which included: "Jungle Cat," "Nocturnal," the unexpected cover of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," the dedicated-to-Santa Cruz "Santa Carla Twilight," and the still-sounds-good-without-the-slide-guitar "Power Of Moonlite."
By the time the band played Nick 13's professed favorite song on the new album and crowd favorite "Rose Of The Devil's Garden" the sound had fully improved and bass definition was restored. "When Night Comes Down" sped things up and made way for a tribute to Johnny Ramone in "Through The Darkness." "Cupid's Victim" saw the pit becoming bigger and bigger until the last note was played, at which time the band left the stage in preparation for the inevitable encore. After reappearing from backstage, Nick 13 briefly thanked Santa Cruz for all the support they have given Tiger Army, and the psychobilly scene in general. The band then fired up a blast from the past, "Temptation," followed by the last song of the evening, "Annabel Lee."
Despite the sound problem that plagued much of the set, Tiger Army were in fine form and sounding better than ever with more than ample support by the Street Dogs. Given the recent lineup changes the band has gone through, one might think that their live show would be somewhat affected. This was definitely not the case as the show was full of energy, passion, and was widely varied with a good mix of early and new material…certainly good news for fans of this band and a sure sign that the inevitable IV:… is within sight.