I had certain expectations coming in from the rain and into Now That's Class last Friday. I assumed I was going to see the Riot Before in top form and local darlings Echoes of Harper's Ferry. Turns out I wouldn't be right about anything all night.
Well, Echoes of Harper's Ferry canceled. But the biggest (and most pleasant) surprise of the night was a set by openers Two Hand Fools. I couldn't find any information about the quartet online, but three things I know for certain: They're local; they're young; and they're very, very good. Whatever misgivings I might have had when I saw three dudes wearing Lawrence Arms hoodies and a girl with a pint-sized bass combo setting up were dispelled by the time they reached their first verse. Looking fresh off a four-year stint in high school, they managed to harness their youthful energy and merge it with an impossibly developed sound. As an added bonus, they were a hoot to watch. Their southpaw drummer flailed wildly (a real treat to witness), never missing a beat while the bass player and rhythm guitarist traded vocal duties. They combined the musical hooks of Scared of Chaka with the aplomb and emotive ferocity of Hot Water Music. Throw in some Against Me! for good measure and you've got one of the newest Orgcore babies, one deserving of both adoption and admiration. They still seemed a bit awkward physically, unsure of where to look, what to say, when to bang their heads, and the bass player's boob was being perpetually stabbed by the arm of her instrument. But all this clumsiness quickly became an endearing watermark of their youth, and ultimately, of their potential. They offered no banter, which means I'm in the dark about song names, where they're from and whether or not they've recorded anything at this point. But I'll assuredly be on the lookout for their name on future bills.
Cheap Girls were on the polar opposite of the physical spectrum. Unfamiliar with the band, I watched in imminent dismay as the three 30-somethings hauled around their equipment. They looked like they were on paid off-days from the office. But just as I had been dead wrong about Two Handed Fools, so I was about Cheap Girls. Shame on me. If the Weakerthans had a guitarist that was only allowed to listen to Thin Lizzy, they would sound like Cheap Girls. I was initially impressed with the catchy melodies and nasally vocals, but soon found myself wondering if the trio had ever thought of writing a hook. The songs were certainly good and performed well, but ultimately lacked zest.
Sometimes I feel personally embarrassed when a worthy band like, let's say, the Riot Before, gets an apathetic response from my hometown. It doesn't make sense and I know I'm not alone, but I still feel responsible. The Richmond natives had to fight an uphill battle from the outset, contending with a sparse early-show crowd, some downright dreary weather and the apparent touring fatigue they've acquired. It takes a lot to shake up a Cleveland crowd on a dark, rainy evening. It takes a whole lot more when there's only 15 people in the audience. The somber opener ("Fists Buried in Pockets") barely seemed to register with the tiny crowd, but more shocking was the lack of response to the normally dynamic "Threat Level Midnight." Still, the Riot Before resembled the same band I remember seeing so fondly for the first time last year at some small fest in Kent, Ohio, only their frontman wasn't smiling so much this time. A year prior, they amalgamated in my mind with the Gaslight Anthem, mostly because they were fantastic and had a mega-handsome, joyous singer. But not a smile was cracked until they reached "We Are Wild Stallions," which had Brett Adams all aglow as he hollered "We'll get away with it!" over and over. They carried that newfound enthusiasm into "The Uttica Stare" and its infectious chorus. But the inertia was brief, and they unplugged as soon as the song ended.
Afterward, I picked up a copy of their newest full-length, Fists Buried in Pockets, from their wacky merch guy. It would have helped my own sense of guilt if I had known more of the material off that album, as it dominated the set list. On my first listen, I couldn't help thinking how much better these songs sounded coming through the pathetic speakers in my '92 Buick than they had on stage. But by that time it had stopped raining. Hopefully the next time the Riot Before rolls through Cleveland, the sun will be shining.