Friday, May 8, 2015

Cougars -- Rocket Bar, July 14, 2004

Sometime between graduation from college and now, my frequency of attending shows on pure spec dropped off to all but nothing. Age and having a full-time day job limited my capacity and, frankly, the motivation to drag my ass to a venue two blocks away from my apartment, let alone to the Rocket Bar on a Wednesday night. On this evening, I can say with certainty that a short night’s rest was well worth what I witnessed. Eight men: two guitar players, a bassist, drummer, trumpet player, saxophonist, keyboardist, and vocalist with a bombastic voice and mile-wide grin. Not since Rocket From the Crypt have I heard this many musicians make rock ’n’ roll this infectious. There are better rock bands out there, but Cougars possess a crossover, party-band quality that even the most jaded music fan can enjoy. Barring a premature break-up—or me being declared legally insane—these guys are going to be huge. Yes. They were that much fun.

Seeing eight men squeeze themselves onto the Rocket Bar’s small, elevated stage was quite amusing. Especially when saxophonist Jeff Vidmont and trumpet player Mark Beening walked out to see the stage packed already. Both had looks of how in the hell are we gonna fit? Well, obviously, they made it up there, along with vocalist Matthew Irie, who was dressed like a regular t-shirt/shorts/ball-cap kind of man. No country club, thrift store textiles for this guy; just a regular ham-and-egger.

Mostly comprised of former members of the Chicago ska outfit Hot Stove Jimmy and the magnificent Big’n, Cougars played the rock. Rock that fell somewhere in between the Jesus Lizard and any number of AC/DC revivalists that are roaming the continent. Vocally, Irie fell right between the universe of Brian Johnston and David Yow, but far raspier. Throughout their set, Irie held court with a flim-flam man grin and hands extended in various arrogant/satirical poses.

However, what made the set were the horns. Vidmont and Beening not only rounded out Cougars’ sound, but also were the key ingredient in what made this band so memorable. Subtract the horns and Cougars are just another noisy rock band; with the horns, they are a blast, which doesn’t work very often in the straight-up rock realm. Horns too often are a distraction from music that would be fine, if not for Mr. Saxophone.
I don’t want to oversell this band. If you listen to their first LP Nice, Nice, you will probably wonder what the big deal is. I’m not dissuading you from buying that LP or their new EP Manhandler, but go see this band the next chance you get. I saw them with around 20 people within spit-shot of the stage. My hunch is that, in a short time, you’ll have a little competition for a spot down front.

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