Concert Review & Flashback: We Were Promised Jetpacks at Maxwell’s (June 15, 2013) & the Bell House (Sept. 11, 2012)
On Saturday night 2bitMonkey made it’s second – and very likely last – visit to Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, NJ, before it closes its doors for good at the end of July. Open since 1978, the club’s owners have decided that Hoboken is no longer the place for them to run a restaurant and rock club. You may be reading this thinking, “Does anyone really care about the closing of some tiny little club in New Jersey?” Surprisingly, the answer is an emphatic yes. Maxwell’s isn’t just any club. It’s closing made news throughout the music industry, such as this article in Rolling Stone. In fact, earlier this year Rolling Stone listed it at #3 on its list of Best Rock Clubs in America. (My favorite rock club – Bowery Ballroom – was #1.) Over its 35 years, despite a capacity of 200 people (if that), Maxwell’s has hosted an incredible array of bands, especially in the post-punk/alternative/grunge scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Among those bands: the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, the Pixies, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and so many more.You can see why many have likened it to a 1980s-90s version of lower east side punk club CBGBs.
My first time there was in February 2012 to see the Dum Dum Girls and Widowspeak. Like so many others who saw a band for the first time at Maxwell’s and became a fan, I went that night to see the Dum Dum Girls and walked away a fan of Widowspeak, who before then I’d never heard of. This past Saturday night, I went to see a band I already knew I enjoyed live, Scottish indie rock band We Were Promised Jetpacks.
I discovered WWPJ very early on, when their debut album These Four Walls was released in 2009. I immediately found their sound overwhelming but very addictive – I could not get their massive hit single “Quiet Little Voices” out of my head, nor did I want to. It wasn’t until 2012 though, after their second album In the Pit of the Stomach was released, that I finally got a chance to see if their live show lived up to their sound. They played the Bell House, a small venue in Brooklyn, and the show wasn’t even sold out, so I was able to get right up to the stage, extremely close to lead singer Adam Thompson (my pictures from that show can be found here). Seeing Thompson in the flesh – actually, seeing the entire band – was a bit of a shock. Nothing about them “looks” rock band-esque. Thompson is babyfaced and a bit pudgy; at the Bell House, he performed wearing Nike basketball shorts and a pair of running sneakers. Together with his three bandmates, the band appeared more like a group you’d expect to be playing your dorm party than a New York City (or in this case Brooklyn) stage. Their looks, however, belie their music, which has been compared (rightfully) to early-era U2 in terms of its bombast. If you haven’t yet heard WWPJ, think U2 in the 1980s but with a modern indie sound (and no political agenda).
Maxwell’s is a bandbox of a venue, and so perhaps ideal for a band like this whose music is so large. This was WWPJ’s last night on tour and they gave it their all, putting everything they had into every note and lyric. Each song was an opus – the set, which began at 11pm, consisted of just 12 songs but lasted until 12:15pm with only a few seconds of banter here and there. That’s an average of 6.5 minutes per song (math!) which is standard, or perhaps necessary, for these guys, as the songs build to incredible decibel levels. The very first song – “Keeping Warm” – comes in at over 8 minutes long on These Four Walls and probably was closer to 10 minutes live. Not a single word was uttered by Thompson until about the five-minute mark, as the band decided to let the instruments do the talking to open the show. This was a fitting start, as the indication was clear that even without vocals the music would be powerful. Thompson kept his eyes closed, appearing deep in thought, until it was his moment to join the band.
The third and fourth songs were popular hits “Quiet Little Voices” and “Ships With Holes Will Sink”, which would have been highlights of the night even without the funny moment that occurred prior to QLV. Maxwell’s is a dive (I think it prides itself on this) and its lighting system mainly consists of a single flood light that shines right at the center of the tiny stage (or can be turned off, with no in between). Thompson stopped to say, with his heavy Scottish accent, “Turn that light off. I feel like I’m on display at a meat market. It’s horrible.” Later on, he’d apologize for looking back to his drummer for cues between songs as he couldn’t see the setlist, since it was now pitch black on stage. As you can imagine, turning off the lights and interacting with the audience (and lighting crew) right before two popular songs only brought the crowd to an even higher place. Everyone was singing/screaming the easy repetitive lyrics of “Quiet Little Voices” and the simple lines of “Ships with Holes” (“I think I died this time!”) together with the band, jumping and raising their fists in the air, but because WWPJ is so loud the crowd didn’t drown out Thompson. These two songs were thrilling.
The next great moment came from WWPJ’s softest and most beautiful song, “This is my House, This is my Home”, which allowed Thompson to show off the depths of his vocal chops as he sang “Something’s happened in the attic … Oh no, they found me.” The performance of House/Home separates WWPJ from a good band (which is obvious from the outset and especially during the QLV/Ships sequence) to a great band. There are many terrific indie bands playing today, but few with the range to pull off House/Home. You can see with the way Thompson closes his eyes often, putting himself into a trance of sorts, the sincerity with which he sings. The gravitas of his lyrics and the sheer volume he brings forth are a sight to behold, like an athlete that is on the zone. House/Home led into a long version of “Roll Up Your Sleeves”, which culminates with Thompson singing the words “Stay calm” over and over, deep in that zone, before drummer Darren Lackie adds “Keep warm, Keep warm.”
It’s a little hard to believe that this is my first mention of Lackie, nearly 1000 words into my review of the show. Lackie is a tremendous drummer and a significant part of what makes WWPJ so remarkable. He plays as fast and as hard as anyone I’ve seen live. He’s also a crowd favorite, as evidenced by the (mostly female) roar when he sang those four words.
Strangely, despite this being a sold out show, it seemed that as midnight approached the club thinned out just a bit. It was around that time that I realized that maybe, just maybe, it really is time for Maxwell’s to close. Three-quarters of this crowd was mesmerized by the Jetpacks’ performance, but throughout the night there was a contingent of fans that were just on that side of the line of being too obnoxious. In a 200 person bandbox, it’s not appropriate to talk when the music demands quiet from the crowd, as it does for example in House/Home. During the penultimate song, “Pear Tree”, there is an absolute silence that the band demands and I suspect typically gets. I remember when Pear Tree was played at the Bell House, when the moment to get quiet became clear, you could hear a pin drop. At Maxwell’s, guitarist Michael Palmer resorted to a benign “shhhh”, whereupon I heard at least one person derisively say “oh, come on.” It was disappointing given how enthused the vast majority of the crowd was, but when Thompson blasted out the lines “If you’d be my pear // then I’ll be your tree” at a truly unbelievable volume, it didn’t have quite the impact that it did in the more cavernous Bell House. Brooklyn is mocked for its snobbery and hipster quotient, but in comparing these two venues you can see why the stereotype is unfair. When presented with a talent like Thompson and company, a Brooklyn crowd gives the artist its due respect; the same cannot be said for the hipsters of Hoboken.
The band closed with “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning”, a song that would blow the roof off of the Barclays Center just as easily as it did tiny Maxwell’s. Despite the lighting issues, and the weird tail of the crowd, the Jetpacks never got out of their zone, which reached a crescendo with this final song. Again, the crowd sang along as loud as humanly possible, and again you couldn’t hear it over the sound coming from the four men on stage. WWPJ are two albums into their career and still playing very small venues (and getting very little radio play on stations where they should be a featured band, like SiriusXM’s AltNation). Hopefully that will change soon. If talent alone were the determining factor, they would be playing nothing smaller than Terminal 5 by now. I’m hopeful that one day they’ll reach the status to which belong and we can add them to the list of great bands that once played Maxwell’s.
As for Maxwell’s itself, like its NYC cousin CBGB’s, it will always be said that it had a wonderful run. About the closing, club booker and co-owner Todd Abramson actually told The Star-Ledger of Newark, “We were offered a renewal with rates that weren’t necessarily onerous. But after much thought, given the changing nature of Hoboken and the difficulties of trying to run a business in this town, we decided it was time. The culture in Hoboken is driven by TV now. A lot of the bars downtown are fighting with each other for who has the most giant TVs. That’s what Hoboken nightlife has become.” That’s a stunning turnaround from what Mike Watt of the Minutemen said about Maxwell’s eight years ago, back when CB’s shut down: “Lots of places burn out, or the people burn out. But Maxwell’s keeps on chugging.”
Being a NYC/Brooklyn person, I know very little about Hoboken nightlife, but Abramson’s words don’t surprise me in light of Saturday night. It’s quite amazing that such an influential rock club could have existed so close to – and yet outside of – New York City. We should celebrate the fact that Maxwell’s was what it was for 35 years, rather than what it has become through no fault of its own. Interestingly, Abramson also books the Bell House. Perhaps he can persuade the music die-hards that still reside in Hoboken that it’s time to relocate to Brooklyn. We’d be happy to have you. To paraphrase Mike Watt: All places burn out, or the people burn out. It’s the music that keeps on chugging.