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Doug Keith At Mercury Lounge Last Night: Alt Rock Jam Band Pretend To Be Folkies by Iman Lababedi

I went rushing home from Doug Keith’s set last night with only one thing on my mind: downloading “Salty Woman” off his first album Here’s To Outliving Me. I found it for free on his website.

A high point last night, “Salty Woman” works off a glorious guitar solo by Keith: purely tuneful notes that rang so loud and sweet it landed him cheers from the audience. The song had morphed into a wall of electric harmony and it was electrifying.

The recorded track includes the solo but to less effect and though it is an excellent hard rock song, it wasn’t what I heard during the show. Therein lies the story of Doug Keith on stage… it wasn’t what I heard on record.

Opening was solo act Doug Gillard has a storied history and it shows. Pulling pop gems from his days with the band Gem and B Sides from his Guided By Voices years,  along with mix and matches culled from the solo albums, 2004’s Salamander and 2008’s (wonderfully named) Call From Restricted, Gillard went from a pop sensibility twinged towards the 80ish power pop revival to pieces so baffling in their structures it is beyond my abilities to describe but seem to be a rock variation on harmalodics. The highlights, the Gem song, a great, great pop number off the first solo album “Valpolicella”,  and unreally complex guitar riff based number I think is from his last album.

It is ridiculously hard to go on stage armed with an acoustic and electric guitar and wow an audience of folks like me, who don’t know any of the material. Gillard was real impressive. Keith would say “Gillard writes incredibly difficult songs and makes it look easy.” I beg to differ. Watching his fingers move last night, it looked surreally difficult.

Speaking of difficulties. I keep on try to peg Doug Keith in a role and he keeps on slipping through my fingers. After listening to the newly released The Lucky Ones I had him down pat: an alt-folkie orchestrated singer-songwriter.

That wasn’t what I saw last night. Last night, Keith and his band were alt-rock sonic wonks. The set opened with the first song off the newbie, “We Left Everything” but it was a difference song than the one we’re used to. Keith and his band (especially drummer Ben Lord) build a wall of noise, perhaps an after efffect of Keith’s experimental days, before he allows the song to emerge. It is a startling beginning, a kick in the pants for those of us who arrived prejudging the evening.

He follows this with “The Lucky Ones” which, if not punk, is at least honors alt-rock heritage.

And he follows that with songs from both albums but mostly the newbie.

Inge introduced me to Keith before the show and I was taken by how damn young he looks! Keith sounds old, he sounds weathered, and he has been around a bit but I’d be shocked if he is over 30. In his jeans and flannel shirt he looks like a kid!! And if so, he is a kid in a toy store and the top toy is a real rock band. And he uses it to devastating effect.

It isn’t the sound of the album and that isn’t always a good thing. The delicacy of Margaret White’s back up vocals is essentially botched and, maybe because they haven’t played live for awhile, the band chemistry isn’t exactly where it will be (Titus had a similar problem earlier this year at the Bowery) even though  Keith is a charming and unassuming -except musically, frontman. Oh, and forty five minutes??? Cmon guy, at least an hour…

But this is nitpicking. By the end of the night Gillard has joined the band on stage and the two guitar attack taking us from the penultimate number “Skip James Radio” through the glorious “The Lowest Low” folk rock (nah, forget the folk) jam climax and the night belongs to Doug Keith and his band.

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