Southpaw, Brooklyn, March 28, 2003
Near the end of their set, Clem Snide sang a song whose chorus went something like: “It’s so close I can see it, I can feel it, I can taste it, so therefore, I can’t touch it.” I was amazed to hear singer Eef Barzelay put into words a weird feeling I’ve always had: that life is somehow so special and important, it has to be set aside — it’s for other people. This was one of many moments when the band startled me by an insight that was not simply clever (I’d heard they were clever) but emotional and affecting, yet plunked seemingly effortlessly into a catchy rock song.
It was hard to tune into these moments, though, because the crowd at Brooklyn’s Southpaw was into talking. All night. Throughout Clem Snide’s set, and even through Barzelay’s sharp complaints about the babble. “You guys who are talking, I just want to remind you, you paid $12 bucks for this,” he said. “That’s 12 bucks you’re never going to see again.” Didn’t help. The crowd may have peaked early, with opener Phil Roebuck’s gutsy one-man-band banjo-and-bass-drum act. Roebuck sang great rootsy/bluesy songs and had everyone in the palm of his hand. Are New York audiences so torqued that they can only really concentrate on one set per night?
But Clem Snide may also have been undone by preconceptions. I, for one, wasn’t prepared for the blast of hard rock noise that came out of them for their first song. The “country-influenced” tag I’ve heard about them seemed misplaced as the band continued to rock hard and Eef Barzelay both looked and sounded like Elvis Costello, as an avid fan pointed out to me. His suit and tie, even his body language — he tilted both his head and his whole torso to sing, just like Elvis C. His guitarist may have been bowing his instrument, but the whole thing didn’t sound very country to me.
The other misconception was this “clever” label that follows the band. This seems all wrong, though the ardent fan I was standing next to pointed out to me that the song “All Green” contained wordplay that involved singer Al Green. Maybe so, but many of the songs seemed to avoid wordplay and directly address real feelings, and many sad ones. “We’re not a very political band,” Barzelay said early on. “But tonight I want to dedicate this to George W.” Then he sang “Your Night to Shine,” a poignant number that referenced mustard gas. It was a piercing reminder of what many folks in the war could be undergoing that very moment. He also sang a song [“Your Favorite Music” – ed.] that went, “I can’t tell you how to love yourself, but I can tell you I wrote this song for no one else.”
Sadness. Rueful acceptance. He’s smart and he’s got a great, expressive voice. I wanted to understand all of it, but the babbling crowd really got in the way. “I’ve never heard an audience for Clem Snide talk so much!” a woman said to me. “In Manhattan the crowds have been much better.” I felt bad for us Brooklyn slobs. Then she added, “This whole band used to be so cute! Oh my God! Me and my girlfriend used to just go on and on!” I nodded sympathetically, having heard the same thing about Clem Snide, actually. Yet I couldn’t help noticing both of us could not stop talking. Maybe there was a full moon.
For the final song, Barzelay glanced out at his unruly audience and politely thanked them, saying it was good to be home (he lives in Brooklyn). Then he said, pointedly, “This is for you,” and the band kicked into a rocking version of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. “Words can’t bring me down today, so don’t you bring me down, oh no,” he sang, only faintly mockingly. “Who is this? Is this Avril Lavigne?” I asked people around me, lost as usual in pop cultural ignorance. Most people shrugged. Finally someone said to me, “It’s actually Christina Aguilera, and man,” he looked admiringly at the band, “she’s never sounded better.”
Check out the Glorious Noise interview with Clem Snide guitarist/banjoist/tubist, Pete Fitzpatrick. There’s also an article about the last time Clem Snide came around. Download some Clem Snide MP3s, and watch whole shows at the Digital Club Network, which totally rocks by the way.