Let’s get this out of the way right up front. Two Cow Garage is everything I imagine Uncle Tupelo must have been back in the day. The UT comparison is inevitable because these kids play the same sort of punk country. The UT comparison is unavoidable because lead singer Micah Schnabel has a great voice that splits the difference between Farrar and Tweedy, but with a growl reminiscent of Steve Earle at his best.
It is a fair comparison, and the band expects it. They even have an anecdote to tell if they’re asked. “We played a set opening for the Bottle Rockets once,” Schnabel tells me before his May 15 gig at Lyon’s Den in Chicago. “Brian Henneman gave us the blessing. He said he felt like he should be tuning some guitars or something.”
Brash and loud, sweet and likeable, and later in the evening I find out it’s his 21st birthday. Sure, I think, why shouldn’t Brian Henneman tune this kid’s guitar? Yep, I fell for the story, hook, line and sinker. (You should too, because it sure as hell is fun to believe that these guys are the heirs apparent to the only alt-country band that was ever worth a shit.)
I ask Micah where this gig was, but he can only remember it was at some dive in a small town in Ohio. Probably not unlike the one he’s from: Bucyrus is located in Crawford County (how perfect is that name?), Ohio, and has a population of 13,000. It’s about halfway between Columbus and Lake Erie. Farm country. Yet more good back-story, I think.
Then Micah tells me the band is playing something like four or five nights a week, all over the country. The night before, they were in St. Louis. The next day they’re back in Ohio, in Akron. The day after that, someplace in Jersey.
For Chrissake, I think, and ask him what they’re traveling in.
“1985 GMC van,” he says. “But it’s got a new engine.”
“You guys sleeping in it too?” I ask, wanting to believe that they are, imagining the scene in my head. Yeah, that’s rock and roll, I think, remembering what it was like to be 21 and on the road.
“Sometimes,” he says with a goofy laugh and a long tug on his beer.
A p.r. man couldn’t have set me up any better to love the show, but I was going to love it anyway. I had seen Two Cow play with Riviera the week before and when they announced they were playing in something called “Twang Off” (no jokes, please; they won the $200 prize), I made my plans on the spot to be in attendance.
But all this great material, this story, these building blocks of bar band myth, I didn’t know any of it yet. All I knew then was that Schanbel and bassist Shane Sweeney could really get to rocking and jumping around and screaming. That drummer Dustin Harigle hits his drums hard and makes one hell of a noise. That the three of them did only the second Beatles cover I’ve ever heard in a bar and liked, a wailing and caustic version of “Don’t Let Me Down.” (For those that care, Quasar Wut Wut‘s version of “I Am The Walrus” would be the other.)
We had Two Cow’s CD laying about the GloNo HQ. When I ripped it onto my computer the day after that first show, the band came up immediately before Uncle Tupelo in the alphabetical track listing in my iTunes library. Is this too good to be true or what? I had thought the name might be the most glaringly wrong thing with the band. Now, even that notion was dispelled.
Listening to the album, Please Turn the Gas Back On, I heard songs that would be familiar to anyone by now, songs about growing up in a hick town in the middle of anywhere and being in love and getting hurt. We know the genre, it’s not particularly complicated, is it? Hell, John Cougar played this shit before my pal Micah was born.
But this is good, I think, wonderful stuff. I love it. But I’ve seen the band, so I hear it differently than I might otherwise. I can’t tell if what’s been recorded is really any better than the latest Ryan Adams CD. It doesn’t matter, I think. Fuck Ryan Adams, this is where it’s at. This is a great band, because they’ve made me like them. This is a great album because given the choice between listening to this or Anodyne today, I will choose this.
Yes, this sort of music makes sense when it touches raw nerves, when a performer causes us to believe in the words and what they represent. After all, this is really country music, even if it is all rocked up. Real, good country music isn’t encumbered by pretense and sensibility. Or at least that’s what I want to believe, at least as badly as I want to believe in Two Cow Garage.