Speed the Plow Triumphs In Overtime

Fussface was still sulking about the Clinton administration's "treacherous" and unexpected extradition of Jimmy Smyth to Belfast in August and in shades too dark a mood to enjoy a spin to the Tinker Street Cafe for the appearance of Speed the Plough in WDST's live performance series. Promptings of "Hey, they've never played in Woodstock before" and "It's free" brought only grumblings like "You know the bugger promised there'd be no more Joe Dohertys when he ran in '92" and "We're talking human rights here! Not grooving!" He was in such a serious funk I suspected he might even be contemplating Republicanism.

"Forget Clinton. Vote the Green ticket," I blurted out, hoping to ward off obsessive thoughts about such drastic leaps as going Republican, suicide, or a sex change operation. "I know your strategy has been not to waste a ballot but that only happens when you don't vote. It won't be wasted when Nader gets so many unanticipated votes that they're forced to pay attention. It'll give the disenfranchised a real wedge, not to mention some sorely needed hope, the next time around, believe me. It's worth the risk." He told me to take a walk.

I got to the Cafe on foot and was surprised to encounter the Madison Marvel, a Woodstock ex-patriot with a unique and extravagant gift for lightening the spirits of those around her. It was too late for Fussface today but my own disposition was rescued as I joined the Marvel and her esteemed cohorts to await the band.

Some radio personalities leave it all at the station but DST's Dave Doud brought some with him for the occasion and Speed the Plow played like the Buffalo Bills in the New York Giants home opener. At first taken aback by the crowd noise, and on any given night the Cafe can be extremely difficult on a group that sets out to charm rather than overwhelm, STP buckled down like troopers and plowed on. There was a little jitteryness and staring with clenched hands between songs but you could quickly tell this was a veteran team.

Sculpted around the songs of keyboardist John Baumgartner, members of the decade-old North Jersey-based group formed around 1983 in The Trypes, an offshoot of The Feelies. John; vocalist-woodwinder, Toni Paruta; vocalist-bass player, Brenda Sauter and guitarist Marc Francia developed their New York club scene following in both bands. Drummer Chris O'Donovan and guitarist Richard Barnes are peculiar to STP, whose name by the way, was a hurry-up acquisition not from the play Speed the Plow but from a tune in a book of old Scottish square-dancing songs.

Barnes and O'Donovan join in on the last two of the groups 4 albums, the latest of which, Marina, on Eastside Digital, a division of Ryko Disc, received fair treatment on a complex mix of overlaid voices, guitars, flute, recorder, et al, at Mix-O-Lydian Studio in Lafayette, New Jersey. The poetry is pastel and sensitive, meanings sliced to wafers like "We are not alone/ We're just living life so separately..." There's beauty in the vocal blends and interplay of woodwinds and keyboard, delicate and shifting rhythmic webs easily threatened by a noisy crowd. There's also a mastery of diverse folk and rock influences with a hint of roots growing from sounds like The Association or a soft-rock Velvet Underground.

They were clearly a bit unnerved by the mixed reception. True, it wasn't an overtly hostile gathering but facing such an obnoxiously self-absorbed audience can make a musician feel like a surfboard tied to a camel. We might suspect it springs in part from a thoughtlessness generated by too much televised entertainment. You can walk in and out, belch and make as much noise as you'd like during a song playing on the tube. It doesn't feel anything. It's just a glass screen without a pulse selling long-dead and safe artistry live on tape. You can get so you forget that not all entertainment is a one-way feed. But some of it was also just musically-jaded Woodstock.

There were spurts of collective attention and some pockets of the room riveted to the set throughout but also a not entirely uncommon, spoiled and indifferent, lack of respect you'll see in Woodstock clubs when locals are having to much fun to stop talking even when the ghost of Bob Dylan comes downstairs (from the room he wrote pieces of Highway 61 in) for a solo set. That didn't happen, by the way. Again, he didn't show.

What did happen was that the band kept on playing, like the Bills at Giants Stadium, Sunday night, until they eventually evened the score and won the game in overtime with a number that rocked out with more bite than anything else they had tried that evening.

There was a distinct impression that this final number wasn't a deviation and, like the Bills, they didn't alter their game plan or stick a feather in their dance and call it Macarena. Sauter especially sparkled as they carried on like pros with what they did best, winning a little more ground piece by piece and earning their due respect.

So, it wasn't news that Speed the Plough pulled out a last minute victory but the analogy bears repeating: Like the Buffalo Bills, they came in with talent and confidence. The oddsmakers were on their side. Like the Bills, they didn't quite cover the spread but they showed what they were made of and came away winners. It wasn't news. It was show biz. It was Woodstock.

You have to gauge how newsworthy something is on a "man bites dog" scale. For instance, when people rob banks they put it in the paper but when banks rob people it's too common an occurrence to bother reporting. It wasn't news. It was music. Just good music.

- Irv Yarg