Hideout Block Party & House of Blues, 9/17

Last week the four original members of the dB’s played their first shows together in 17 years, and in a typical display of perversity they opened both Chicago dates with “Ask for Jill.” First released in 1982, it’s a jittery, difficult song that starts with Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple’s guitars pulling in opposite directions on a rumba rhythm. Stamey sings a seesawing melody, drummer Will Rigby works against them with an eccentric, kick-drum-heavy pattern, and Gene Holder holds the song together on bass. It sounds like a hit record trying to pass a geometry exam.

Kicking off with a tune like this is exactly the sort of eager overreaching that made the dB’s the most exciting power-pop band of the early 80s. Even now the group’s first two albums–Stands for Decibels (1981) and Repercussion (1982)–explode with ambition, delivering impeccably crafted songs and adventurous production. Stamey and Holsapple, childhood friends in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, divided the songwriting in half and played a stunning game of musical one-upmanship, Holsapple leaning toward upbeat pop and Stamey toward eerily experimental sounds. The friction between their styles was enhanced by fellow Winston-Salem kids Holder and Rigby, an energetic and inventive rhythm section that locked into the propulsive, itchy grooves. Vocalists Stamey and Holsapple aimed for the pristine harmonies of the Beatles or Big Star, but their idiosyncratic voices would never quite blend–there was always something slightly off in the combination, which created the endearing impression that they couldn’t quite realize the sounds they heard in their heads.

In rock circles the dB’s are legendary might-have-beens. They moved to New York City in the late 70s but couldn’t secure an American label: their first two albums, widely considered their finest, were released by Albion Records in the UK and for many years could be found in the U.S. only as imports. Bad luck plagued the dB’s onstage as well: as Rigby writes on www.thedbsonline.net, “The band acquired something of a reputation in its early days for equipment mishap/breakdown. Amps that suddenly stopped working, cymbal stands falling over, radio reception in the middle of songs.”

After Stamey went solo in 1982, the more radio-friendly Holsapple took over as sole songwriter, but the excellent Like This (1984) was handicapped by distribution problems and dropped out of sight when its label folded. The country-inflected Sound of Music came out on I.R.S. in 1987, but the label neglected the dB’s in favor of its star act, R.E.M. The group finally disbanded in 1988.

Stamey reunited with the rest of the original dB’s lineup to play a benefit later that same year, though, and in 1991 he and Holsapple collaborated on the superb Mavericks. The band’s current reunion was precipitated by another benefit concert: in November 2003, Stamey and Holsapple got together in Raleigh to help raise money for Alejandro Escovedo, who’s suffering from hepatitis C (and whose album A Man Under the Influence Stamey produced). The two old friends discussed doing another duo album, but instead decided to enlist Rigby and Holder and re-form the dB’s. Earlier this year they recorded seven new originals, and they’re trying to pick from among a dozen more to round out an album they hope to release in 2006. This month’s four-show microtour had only two stops, each in one of the band’s 80s strongholds–Hoboken, their second home during the New York years, and Chicago, where WXRT seized on “Love Is for Lovers” and “A Spy in the House of Love” and the dB’s played relentlessly in support of Like This.

During their original run the dB’s earned a reputation as an inspired but uneven live act, and their early-evening set at the Hideout Block Party bore that out. Wedged into a 45-minute slot and burdened with a rough mix, they struggled with complicated numbers like “Dynamite” and “Cycles per Second.” Time hasn’t been kind to Holsapple’s voice, which made for a murderous rendition of the high-tenor rave-up “Black and White.” Stamey’s moody “Happenstance,” with its shifting dynamics and elaborate arrangement, failed to draw in the festival crowd, partly because the band had upped the ante by replacing the backbeat-driven rhythm of the chorus–the song’s payoff–with something more introspective. Yet on balance the dB’s provided what the large and adoring crowd had come to hear, delivering passionate performances of the Beatlesque “Big Brown Eyes,” the Memphis-soul-powered “Living a Lie,” and the blackly funny suicide boogie “Amplifier.”

Three and a half hours later the band assembled on the House of Blues Back Porch Stage, a more intimate restaurant setting that allowed Stamey and Holsapple to show off their stunning guitar work and rich catalog of songs. Holsapple delighted the audience with WXRT favorites like “Love Is for Lovers” and “Lonely Is (As Lonely Does),” and Stamey aced two wonderful tracks from Stands for Decibels: the gentle, Kinks-inspired “She’s Not Worried” and the bouncy “I’m in Love” (taken at a less frantic tempo that highlighted its fine construction). Stamey is an impressive fingerstyle guitarist, improvising jazzy staccato solos, and though Holsapple can’t match his technique, his own solos are beautifully written, like little self-contained stories. The cerebral “Cycles per Second” crystallized perfectly this time around–the way the dB’s navigated the tune, you could tell the four of them have been friends for more than 30 years.

At the end of the night a stomping crowd coaxed the dB’s back out for a second encore of three new songs. They promised to return next year, though they haven’t yet found a label for their forthcoming album and their ability to tour is limited–they’ve all got other professional commitments, and Holsapple recently lost his home in New Orleans. (One of the newly recorded tracks, a cover of the old Jimmy Ruffin single “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” is for sale on the band’s Web site, with proceeds to benefit the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund.) A live dB’s performance may be only an approximation of the band’s ambitious studio concoctions, which may be only an approximation of even more incredible sounds that only they can imagine. But even in middle age, they’re still shooting the moon.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.