In 1996, I stood in the front row of Detroit’s St Andrews Hall and watched Polvo unleash hell. The North Carolina quartet was at the height of its considerable indie-rock power, and proved it with a blistering reset of Gary Numan’s “Cars.” It was the perfect cover song, mixing the black lipstick’d histrionics of Numan’s signature tune with Polvo’s gull wave bridge of Silvertone fury. “Cars” remained, but Ash Bowie and Co. had ripped out the circuit board and jury-rigged the mainframe, re-programming the original’s dirty vibe into a distorted lockgroove. It was a real Rock and Roll moment, and somewhere, AC/DC stood up and cheered.
Last Friday, it was time to root for the cool kids again, as The Pedal Steel Transmission took the stage at Schubas. Like the name suggests, the Chicago quartet is built around its pedal steel guitar. But this isn’t Gene Autrey, beans out of a can, or yodeling. It’s more like a pedal steel guitar with its collar up and a knife in its teeth. Warriors, come out and play…and they did. The Pedal Steel Transmission is cosmic American music, like Gram Parsons, The Band, Sixteen Horsepower, or Afghan Whigs (r.i.p.) before them. But this country music is made in The Big City. The high-lonesome, Neil Young soul is present and accounted for, but it’s ghost-riding on a dark back road called Rock and Roll. Churning, LOUD guitar clashes with the pedal steel, and both hit up the rhythm section for a fix of Polvo-esque groove. Cowboys in leather jackets? Maybe. But it’s more like rough riders listening to Fugazi and Stereolab around the fire. When The Pedal Steel Transmission really got on their horse about midway through the set Friday night, it was like Lou Reed in a cowboy hat, and somewhere Adam Duritz cried into his beer.
Rock and Roll ain’t noise pollution.