Saturday Gig: The Mooney Suzuki in Woodstock

“Woodstock, the force fields are down.”

So insisted Sammy James Junior to the audience in the Bearsville Theater bar last Saturday night shortly after his band The Mooney Suzuki took the floor. (There is no stage in the Bearsville bar.) The crowd, such as it was, had been hesitant to embrace the well-traveled New York City garage rockers during the opening instrumental and subsequent rabble-rousing anthem ‘Electric Sweat,’ and Sammy wasn’t going to stand for it. He wanted them in his face.

The Bearsville’s initial reticence should not have come as a surprise. Woodstock, as you surely don’t need telling, is the hippy headquarters of the American east coast. Jam bands and singer-songwriters rule the roost here, and audiences are accustomed either to groups that noodle all night long, or to soloists who demand rapt attention. So when the likes of The Mooney Suzuki come rolling into the village, bringing their voluminous take on the classic Who/Yardbirds/MC5/Dr. Feelgood/Sly-Stones/Sonics sound with them, you can understand people being taken somewhat aback.

The force field comes down. Sammy James Junior plays on the floor to a group of grooving girls.

But the rarity of seeing a (relatively) well-known, turbo-charged, proper rock’n’roll band in the cozy confines of a local laid-back bar ensured that Sammy got his wish. By night’s end, he and lead guitarist Graham Tyler were playing on the bar and a group of girls had worked up such a sweat in front of the microphones I’d almost taken them for the band’s stooges. The elegance of the Bearsville’s bar aside, this had been your classic down’n’dirty Saturday night American rock’n’roll gig, the kind you used to see in the movies. The kind Springsteen sings about. The kind you could near rightly assume don’t exist any more.

The irony is, The Mooney Suzuki should not have been here. Not if things had gone as planned. After the grass roots success of 2000’s debut album People Get Ready and 2002’s Electric Sweat, which coincided perfectly with both the New York City and garage rock revivals, The Mooney Suzuki were subject to a major label frenzy, and duly went with Columbia/Sony. What ensued was an almost predictable calamity: a band signed on the back of its own songs was sent to write with The Matrix (cf Avril Lavigne); a group that had recorded its successful albums in a week apiece now spent a solid four months in the studio. Though the resulting album Alive & Amplified had its (shamelessly commercial) moments, public reaction was muted to the point of silence, and The Mooney Suzuki were quietly dropped a few months later, another million dollar major label experiment gone to waste.

Electric Sweat: Ro, James, Rockwell-Scott and Tyler give it more than 99%.

Undeterred – they still had that live reputation – the group secured a fresh deal with V2, recorded their new album Have Mercy last spring (some of it in Woodstock), and prepared for a February release. Then, in December, V2 announced it would become a catalogue label, no longer in the disastrous business of financing new music. The Mooney Suzuki are once again “between labels” while lawyers attempt to extricate Have Mercy from the V2 vaults to see release on what will surely be an indie.

You might expect such experiences to weigh a man down. But Sammy James Junior told me after the Bearsville gig that “We’ve been really fortunate,” and he wasn’t putting me on. He seems genuinely grateful for the opportunities he’s had to put out records, play festivals, tour with bands he admires, and record music for TV commercials and movies (The Mooney Suzuki provided the theme song for Jack Black’s ‘School Of Rock’). Monday morning, a decade since they started, they were set to drive across country for a support tour with Albert Hammond, Jr., in venues they ought to be headlining. Call them simplistic, but don’t deny their positive attitude.

Onstage (or on the floor), Sammy James Junior is very much the focal point, but he’s far from the only attraction. Lead guitarist Graham Tyler does floor drops and bar hops effortlessly from behind his almost comically long fringe; new bassist Rono Ro has much of old Thunderfingers in his melodies, and drummer Will Rockwell-Scott is perfectly able at the back. At the Bearsville bar, the quartet focused heavily on Electric Sweat (title track, ‘Young Man’s Mind,’ ‘Oh Sweet Susanna’), threw in a couple of the more obvious numbers from Alive & Amplified (‘New York Girls’ and ‘Shake That Bush Again’) and introduced several songs from the new album.

Bar banned? Graham Tyler gets up close and personal.

Have Mercy (yes, I have a copy) is a deliberately more rootsy recording that simultaneously attempts to ratchet up the songwriting. It’s not totally successful: ‘First Comes Love’ means well, but the narrative is shop-worn, and as for naming a ballad ‘Rock’n’Roller Girl,’ you have to hope it was done tongue firmly in cheek. But then dry humor is clearly a part of The Mooney Suzuki’s appeal: the six-minute banjo-and-piano countrified ‘Good Ol’ Alcohol’ is a good-humored tribute to their adult drug of choice. (“I’ve become so much more civilized since moving on to spirits and beers.”)

And when they focus on the groove that made them popular to begin with – nuggets-punk gospel-infused R&B – they’re hard to beat. ‘99%,’ Have Mercy’s opening song, is a reaffirmation of ideals and enthusiasm set to a deliriously dumb “na-na-na” singalong, possibly their finest moment yet. (You can hear it at their myspace page.) But for the most part, The Mooney Suzuki’s albums serve as advertisements, a mere hint of what they deliver live, where the sheer force (field) of their presentation renders all the clichés redundant, and serves to remind that there’s a place in rock for everything – especially the good ol’ (alcohol-soaked) Saturday night bar gig.

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October 2021