Wussy, Oh My Me
March 16, Vino's
Listening to someone go on about a favorite band can try patience and perhaps even end friendships. At its mildest, the enthusiasm is charming, indulged as a likeable, eccentric tic, the stuff that makes us who we are. Left to metastasize, it's Ron Paul on the Fed, and at its worst, waterboarding.
That’s why I was careful to temper my pleas for Facebook friends and flesh-and-blood friends alike to attend the Wussy show at Vino’s last Friday night, because I was so excited I could easily envision myself as a Wussy bore. As a result, I went alone. Doors were at 9 p.m., and I coolly arrived at 9:07 p.m., in time for the sound check by the opener, Oh My Me, from Kentucky. The triple bill, which also included the Sundresses (like Wussy, from the greater Cincinnati area), was part of the Midwest by Southwest tour (MWXSW), which found Little Rock well-placed on I-40 for bands going to and from Austin for South by Southwest. The stop, however, was not arranged very far in advance, so local media attention was scarce, and I found out about it only by a Facebook ad (!), the first one I’ve ever clicked on.
Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker are the appealingly scruffy front-couple of Wussy, and they share songwriting, guitar work and vocals with an equality that suggests the wound cords of a thick, strong rope. Sometimes the rope is used in a tug-of-war, and sometimes it becomes a swing from a tree with one pushing the other. I don’t want to fit them into some arbitrary rock classification, but will just say that sometimes they’re loud, sometimes gentle, their songs are generally short, their lyrics taut and often moving, and they harmonize well, with rough-hewn country-rock as the binding material.
I first became a fan of Cleaver back in the early 1990s when he was the guiding intelligence of the band Ass Ponys, whose name, as with Wussy, flirts with inappropriateness in a way that thumbs its nose at major-label appeal (if there is such a thing anymore). Nevertheless, the Ass Ponys signed a deal with A&M on the back of Cleaver’s literate, dirty-realist lyrics, distinctive high voice, and music-magazine praise of their second album, Grim, which even produced a jaunty, Billboard-charting single, “Little Bastard.” It goes: “Little bastard, / All fish-belly white / Wears gym trunks / And a tank-top shirt / When his grandma / Sees him playing with a knife / She says, ‘Put that down, / You’re gonna get hurt.’ ” I saw them open for both Throwing Muses and Neko Case, and it seemed then an odd pairing with those strong women singers. Cleaver’s barrel-chested biker looks — his unruly beard spreading out on his chest — reinforced the masculine-reprobate words of his outré monologists (“Your parrot / He mocks me / You better shut him up / Or else / He’s had it” from “Redway”).
On the other hand, he was undoubtedly one of the smartest lyricists around, and teaming with Walker — once as a romantic couple but now as professional collaborators and good friends — softened Cleaver’s acerbic streak and reduced the distance from which he observed the world and himself. He delivers real emotional punch in the song “Asteroids,” from their most recent full-length, Strawberry, when he wails: “Way out / Among the asteroids / That’s where you took my heart / And left it floating in the frozen void.” And when Walker laments on “Mayflies,” with Cleaver echoing the ends of lines, “With this blood on my hands / And this voice in my head / And the memory of someone I left for dead,” she’s his match in angst. They’re a doomed couple who nevertheless find transcendence — and connection with their audience — in their joint ability to articulate their pain. All songwriting is credited to “Wussy,” not to an individual. Through five albums, they have produced a body of work so listenable and relistenable, so eccentric and yet accessible, so funny and sharply written, that I’m tempted to trot out the ultimate Arkansas compliment: they remind me of Charles Portis.
The Wussy fans at the show had the ardency of one of the misfit secret societies of Portis’s novels but also its meager numbers. And like the Gnomons of "Masters of Atlantis," we experienced disaster and dissolution. The two couples who were at Vino’s when I arrived watched with me Oh My Me’s sound check, then their pizza dinner, and finally, their 30-minute set, which began at 10 p.m. They were very good, and the lead singer, Erin Reynolds, evoked Beth Ditto and Janis Joplin, even drawing one of the couples onto the vacant floor after she announced that the next song was their “dance number.” During a following song, one of the members of the Sundresses placed a chair on stage, facing the group and just listening to them oddly, as word circulated that some dispute with the club had led him to cancel their set.
While Wussy was setting up, the couples left, replaced by three prom-dress-clad teens, who’d perhaps wandered in from a post-cotillion pizza in the restaurant. They soon departed, too, and by the time Wussy launched into their first song, the mournful “Waiting Room,” we numbered a solid six. The band was tight, the usual four-piece setup augmented by pedal steel, and they were rigorously professional and energetically oblivious to our low numbers. As Cleaver sang of a face with “lines and creases coming on like U.S. Grant took Richmond,” I had to smile at the treat we lucky few were going to get.
It was not to be. Feedback soon interrupted Walker’s mike on the next song, leaving her clutching her head like Munch’s Scream. After two more attempts at her mike, both halted by piercing shrieks of feedback, she punched it to the ground and gamely joined Cleaver at his mike, joking good-naturedly that she was playing Little Steven to his Springsteen as their faces almost touched. When that mike also began screaming, she said, “That’s it,” and shut it down, and who could blame her.
Afterward, as they mingled with us, they could not have been more gracious. Walker apologized profusely, thanked us for coming and gave us hugs. We apologized for the turnout. Cleaver asked us for our shirt sizes and rushed off to the van to gather up t-shirts for us, gratis, for showing up and paying $10 to hear two songs. (That’s good merch given away by real working-class musicians; back in Cincinnati, Cleaver’s a stonemason and Walker waits tables in a vegan restaurant.) He wryly warned that the WUSSY name on our shirts might make us a target for bullies, and he promised that the band would come back but “not here.” Needless to say, I hope they do.
Later in the weekend, I learned that, on the very day of Wussy’s disastrous Little Rock show, Robert Christgau, the dean of U.S. rock critics, devoted his monthly column on Barnes & Noble’s Web site to Wussy, calling them “the best band in America” since they released the first of their five albums, Funeral Dress, in 2005. Their oeuvre of 46 songs, he further gushed, approached “Beatles-Stones consistency” but, he continued, they have never once been mentioned on Pitchfork and “remain dishearteningly obscure.” I wonder now if I should simply frame that t-shirt instead of wearing it, both to preserve its value when Wussy eventually achieve acclaim…and, of course, to avoid getting beaten up.