Even before Dum Dum Girls took the stage, its onstage backline (which all three bands used) suggested this would be a special show. There was a mouthwatering array of vintage amplifiers and guitars, including several genuine Silvertone guitars, which are my favorite. (The only thing cooler would have been if they'd also used one of those built-in amps that often come with Silvertone guitar cases.) The bass drum was decorated with the Letraset logo from the first EP, and each of their three amplifiers was silkscreened with one word each from their band name and draped in black lace. Not as many onstage artifacts as, say, Sonic Youth or your average Elephant 6 band, but very suggestive of good things to come.
This was the first opportunity St. Louisans have had to check out Dum Dum Girls' live show. When the band's first recordings started showing up online two years ago, mystery was a huge ingredient. Supposedly those early tracks - fuzzy and intensely hook-laden songs with stylized, almost 4AD-ish vocals slowly bubbling to the surface - were recorded by "a librarian from Los Angeles." Since then, primary Dum Dum Girl Dee Dee has emerged from behind her four-track recorder, signed to Sub Pop, put a full band together and weathered a few lineup changes. The results so far - the I Will Be LP and the forthcoming He Gets Me High EP - have slowly broadened the sonic palette, adding elements of Brill Building pop and shinier production. At the same time, it's still basically Dee Dee writing the songs and building tracks on top of drum loops. Part of the intrigue about this show, then, was seeing how this solitary approach would translate live.
As you would expect, Dum Dum Girls' show is much lmore collaborative than the recordings. For one thing, there's a live drummer. Sandy pounds away like Keith Moon, not only adding new dimensions to the album tracks but suggesting ways forward for new songs (such as the "Wipeout" surf riff that powers "Teardrops") Bassist Bambi stands completely still, a la Bill Wyman or John Entwistle, filling in the lower end amply and effectively. Dee Dee and guitarist Jules trade Silvertone riffs, and everyone sings. Indeed, the first thing that stuck out about their first song (a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire") was how full the harmonies were.
The set list was heavy on I Will Be and He Gets Me High tracks, with "Catholicked" showing up from the four-track days. The band plowed through its songs with a minimum of banter. They didn't need it: they were charismatic enough, and the songs powerful enough, to easily connect with the Billiken Club audience. Often Dee Dee would stand at the microphone for a few seconds, building the tension, before careening into the first verse. For an encore, they performed the Smiths' "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out." (Advice for new and working bands alike: You will never go wrong by covering the Smiths. It's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.)
"There Is a Light That Never Goes Out"
These past two years have seen a spate of low-tech, fuzzy indie bands from Brooklyn and California. Many of them have made enduring music. But Dum Dum Girls is simply the best of the batch, and one gets the feeling that the band's still growing and evolving. What a treat to see that it's also a powerful live act. One of the best shows of 2011, and it's not even March yet.
Critic's notebook: Dum Dum Girls handpicked both opening acts. The Minks were an absolute delight, a coed sextet whose jazz- and soul-inflected indiepop sound recalled Orange Juice (especially in their use of a Gretsch hollowbody guitar), Felt, and the Shelflife Records roster. They get bonus points for having cassettes for sale at their merch table next to the CDs and singles. They said they enjoyed playing St. Louis, and are well worth checking out next time they're in town. Opening act Dirty Beaches was one guy, a set of prerecorded loops, and a cheap microphone that made his vocals sound as if they were coming through a transistor radio. Much of his set was Suicide-like in its brutal, minimalist riffing and desperate vocal yelping. Oddly, he had a habit of combing his pomade-laden quiff every couple of songs like Fonzie. This is the first and only musician I've ever seen to tend to hair care onstage.
Set list: 1) Play With Fire 2) He Gets Me High 3) Catholicked 4) I Will Be 5) Bhang Bhang, I'm A Burnout 6) Take Care Of My Baby 7) Jail La La 8) Wrong Feels Right 9) It Only Takes One Night 10) Teardrops 11) Everybody's Out 12) Lavender Haze 13) Rest of Our Lives
Encore: 14) There Is A Light That Never Goes Out