Ah, Northside Tavern. The space, the music frontier. We hook up here, in the land of everybody knows somebody. One by one, artists slip inside. No walking. Slipping. The atmosphere: coolness, wanna-be coolness and downright scariness, which scores above cool on my planet.
Campfire Crush just beamed back from some out-of-town gigs. Grinning, they describe their Wisconsin audience as baffled, demanding encores. With trumpet, lap steel, drums and bass, this band's setup alone calls forth, "Hello, oddity."
Dishing out the age-old question concerning musical backgrounds, I get nowhere. Dead duck. Dan McCabe (vocals, trumpet) leans back and states, "We're all lifers." McCabe is a smiley, squinty thinker, end-of-workday dreamy. But onstage, wearing vintage suits, he fiendishly plays trumpet, his expression bye-bye. Zoning.
Jane Lane (bass), a blonde with calf-high boots, looks like a rocker, a greenish star tattooed on one arm's underside. But she maintains a wise, secretive expression. Like she's known some jagged roads and could write a manual on how to trek through the craters. When asked about her "female bassist" role, she shrugs, smoking, making no bones about it.
Carrie Reynard (vocals, lap steel) looks through black-rimmed glasses and, minus the nose stud, appears conservative, until she mentions her hobby, Barnyard Burlesque, and that her ass graces the cover of Lunar Moss, Campfire Crush's new CD.
Eric Cope (drums) arrives late. He looks like a drummer — compact, moves rocket-fast, has a slew of tats. Cope smiles and says, "I just show up, even though half the time I don't know where the venue is," then disappears.
In the '90s, Lane and Reynard, bandmates in Radiolaria, knew McCabe from Sudsy Malone's, where he handled bookings. When McCabe's band, Roundhead, and Radiolaria split up simultaneously, the three bonded. Soon after, hosting a warehouse party, Lane hired Cope as elevator operator man, and he ended up the band's drummer. In 2002, Campfire Crush lost its virginity to the Southgate House.
McCabe, who now books some Southgate House shows (and is CityBeat's marketing and promotions coordinator), says, "In this city, there's an authenticity filter ... people who chase other people's music are found out, so musicians have to get crafty."
True to this diversity theory, Lunar Moss has a distinct, upbeat sound mixed with quirky transitions, layered vocals and a coat of strangeness. No crunchy guitars (or guitars at all). A gravity-free, open-ended feel anchored by the rhythm section. An edgy Pink Floyd, a happy alien, a natural acid. The album was written collaboratively over two years but McCabe jokes, "When the others aren't lookin', I like to infect it; I add things and get a little weirder."
As for songwriting influences, they're somewhat elusive, but mention Beulah, Stereolab and Grandaddy. According to McCabe, "R.E.M. once saved me from Heavy Metal demise. Listen, my head's been a battering ram ... I've played in bands decades-plural. But I'm more honest in this one. In the past, I would've never written words that are so telling."
"We're older and not as desperate," Lane says. "There's been a lot of personal growth through this band's history."
Poof, Cope reappears. "This band tamed me down," he says. "The mellow nature makes me think. I still have some drummer's rage, but I usually have a tantrum and (then) realize Jane was right."
For now, they travel on weekends, balancing music, careers and families, but there was a time when they all put it on the line for the road.
"The road can be lonely and hard," Lane says.
Reynard adds, "And abusive, substance-wise."
McCabe disagrees. "I'm a road hog. I love that shit."
Then some smoke, some drink, some leave, and McCabe reveals the cosmic words he uses to describe Campfire Crush's curious sound: "Everything's gonna be all right."
CAMPFIRE CRUSH (nationalradio.cc/campfirecrush) hosts a CD release show Friday at the Northside Tavern.