Who is Lydia Loveless?

Today a musician friend asked me, “Who is Lydia Loveless? Is it a singer or is it a band?”

If he had asked that question back in July, right after I had seen her as an opening act. playing a big dreadnaught guitar, with Benjamin Lamb on mostly acoustic bass, I would have answered simply, and honestly, “Lydia Loveless is the greatest singer on the face of the planet.”

And yes, I do believe that down to the core of my being. She could sing the list of ingredients from a bottle of Newman’s Own Lite Caesar dressing and break your heart. Every note is a novel of emotion, vulnerability, power, and ultimately confidence. Every note is David slaying Goliath. She straps you onto an emotional roller coaster of love, lust, drunken mistakes, a little stalking, a lot of heartbreak, and you’re left breathless, stunned, happy to have taken the ride. Wishing it would begin again, right freaking now.

But after seeing Ms. Loveless play live with a full band twice this weekend, first at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts, and then at the Studio at Webster Hall in New York City, my answer could just as well be, “Lydia Loveless is the best fucking rock band on the planet.”

And I don’t mean the typical singer/songwriter with guitar backed by a bunch of great studio musicians making every note sound like the record. I mean a fucking band. Every member sweating in sync with the other, creating a chaotic Irish car bomb of beautiful noise. Each player an integral wire without whom the entire conceit might simply never detonate.

Sure, that voice is still there. But now the acoustic has been replaced by an old G&L electric with P90 pickups that growl like a feral dog. Or a Fender Tele that looks a little frightened every time she straps it on. Now she gets lost in the songs in a complete different way, her hair whipping into her face, her eyes fluttering strobe-like, she’s possessed, a punk rock shaman. And when she holds onto a note now, you feel the gut punch. You can see your own soul leaving your body. On the song “Mile High” she asks, “Can I have one taste of every breath that you take?” But in the breakneck live version, she doesn’t ask nicely. She literally takes your breath away, and leaves you gasping at the end, you chest heaving from the heartbreak that please no, the song can’t be over.

There is something about that song which kills me. Released as a Record Store Day 45 this past April, it’s become to me the song of the summer, the song of the year. Honestly the song of the half-over decade.   And live there’s an unexpected urgency. An anger not on the single. When she sings the best line from any song in years, “And my heart’s breaking faster than my will not to call you,” at the start of the second verse, it’s ramped up now, piercing, her anger turned inward. The sexy playfulness of the first verse also takes on different meaning. She’s pulled the rug out on our very belief system that we might have known what the song was about. When it was over I wanted her to play it again. Then again after that, as I do so often in my Jeep. I want her playing it right now in my kitchen as I write this. Like a piece of art, you pull back a layer every time you hear it thinking there can’t be more. This is it. But like any great piece of art, there’s always more. The artist smirking, daring you to read the fine print on their soul.

Her stage banter also felt different when she was wielding an electric guitar. Self-deprecating, sarcastic, funny-flirty. It’s her party, though she might be having second thoughts as to having sent out so many invites. And the middle-finger salute she gave to the hipster boys with their cellphone cameras held high during the New York City show certainly made this old man smile.

Lydia Loveless at the Studio at Webster Hall.  Photo by Brendan Welsh-Balliett
Lydia Loveless at the Studio at Webster Hall. Photo by Brendan Welsh-Balliett

But as I’ve said, in this incarnation, Ms. Loveless is a pack leader. This is a real band. I cannot stress that enough. This is The Replacements with Bob Stinson on that stage. And you know I don’t use that comparison lightly. But I think even Mr. Stinson would be pleased with Todd May playing his the part.

Mr. May is a category 5 hurricane on stage, wrestling an over-driven noise from a beat-up G&L with a neck so black Springsteen’s old “Born to Run” Tele would be jealous. He’s the living breathing example of playing all the wrong notes so beautifully at the right time. He’s Quasimodo, hunched over in his little corner of the stage, stomping and suddenly glaring, his eyes going wide as if he had sold his soul to the devil, and now was the time to pay up. He’ll lean over his old Fender Bassman amp, stealing from it whispers of distortion to feed to his leads, his fills. Teasing, taunting every note with it like a piece of meat to a junkyard dog.

On the opposite side of the stage is Jay Gasper on pedal steel and 12-string. But he ain’t your granddad’s pedal steel player. He’s Freddy Kreuger. He’ll lure you into submission with the lilting open of “Somewhere Else” and then shatter your perception of what that instrument is supposed to be. When he picks up his Danelectro 12-string things really get strange. No one is supposed to get those sort of sounds from a 12-string. I think they’re illegal in many states. The prettiness has been tattooed and pierced, the fishnet stockings ripped.

Watch Mr. Gasper play and you understand the joy behind every note this band plays. He is truly having an out-of-body experience on stage. Sometimes making comments that will crack Ms. Loveless up. Sometimes just talking to no one. But always grinning from ear-to ear. It’s a beautiful thing.

Behind the drum kit is George Hondroulis. And though drummers rarely get any credit unless they’re Neil Peart, or someone of that ilk, let me state for the record a simple fact, there are no great rock & roll bands without great drummers behind them. Chris Mars was a great drummer. Mark Price is an amazing drummer. Tommy Ramone, you try keeping that beat. That’s the group I put Mr. Hondroulis in. He’s the engine which drives this gloriously dented Dodge Charger with 470 HP under the hood.

And then there’s Benjamin Lamb, who probably looks as if he’d be a better fit in Metallica, playing a stand-up bass, the only thing on the stage taller than he is. But though he might look heavy-metal, the playing reminds me most of Bruce Thomas of Elvis Costello’s band The Attractions. Who was always in my opinion the greatest bass player of all time. Mr. Lamb does more than just add a bottom note to the band’s sound. He brings to the table a alternate melody. He’s playing a lead bass of sort, never getting in the way of the vocals or guitars, but adding yet another layer.

Take for example “Boy Crazy,” which the band closed their raucous tour-ending set with Sunday night. Mr. Lamb puts down the stand-up bass, straps on a fretless electric, and takes position at the lip of the stage. As the ending of the previous song “Crazy” subsides, he rips into this song’s bass line, and suddenly it’s 1977 all over again. The members of the band flailing and wailing, seemingly unaware of each other, yet so perfectly in snyc.  And by the end Ms. Loveless is on her knees swigging beer, battering her guitar. Then, as Mr. Lamb uses the overhead pipes connected to the ceiling as a bow against the strings of his bass, Ms. Loveless leans over her Blues Junior amp, now twisting the controls as if lost in the middle of the ocean and trying desperately to get a signal. Her Tele now just a casualty, lying at her feet, as she stomps on its strings with the heel of her boot. No wonder it looked frightened.

They’re a band. They’re a band. They’re a fucking great band.

(This is a YouTube video by Joe Castrianni of the “Boy Crazy” performance of which I speak.  It will give you an idea of the glorious mayhem at the end of the song.)

And of course this takes nothing away from Ms. Loveless. Did Stinson, Stinson and Mars take anything away from Paul Westerberg? We know the answer to that question all too well.

On stage she is the center of the storm, stomping her left foot backward, an angry tick in time to whichever song. Or pulling her take on Costello’s classic “My Aim Is True” pose, twitching to the music, vibrating with an energy I haven’t seen since Joe Strummer. She’s a guitar string about to snap. (She’s playing hard enough that she broke a string two songs in on Saturday night, and towards the end of her set on Sunday.)

Even when she slows it down, as she did both nights on the haunting new composition “Out On Love,” which brought her to tears in Northampton, there’s a raw poignancy. It’s not a ballad, it’s a slow rocker. She fingerpicks that Tele laced with distortion, as her voice cuts through leaving the crowd stunned and speachless. On Sunday she also played a another new tune, “Real.” Both haunt me now. I want to hear them again. I want to know every word. I want to know how they’ll sound on the next record.

Regarding sets, the Saturday show was shorter due to the venue’s time constraints. The band rocked through most of her new record “Somewhere Else,” changing every song up just enough, adding even more of a whallop. As if the songs themselves had grown up and weren’t afraid to challenge the audience. She ended the set with “Steve Earle” from her “Indestructible Machine” album, the song now slow and bluesy. The words, about a stalker of sorts who looks like Steve Earle, not as light-hearted as on the record. The tone making them menacing now. While she used to be amused, now she’s most certainly disgusted.

In New York they mixed it up more, playing ninety minutes plus. And as charged up as they were on Saturday, this set, the last of their current tour, seemed to explode. “Really Wanna See You Again,” especially had such a punk rock force, from Ms. Loveless counting up out loud right before the vocals kick in, to her spitting out “I really wanna kiss you again right on the mouth and tell you all the things I should have told you then,” with such a vengeance that you were left wondering if it weren’t as much a threat as a letter of desire.

Lydia Loveless at the Studio at Webster Hall. Photo by Brendan Welsh-Balliett
One of the greatest aspects of rock & roll is not knowing what comes next. And even seeing them back-to-back on consecutive nights I was still surprised on Sunday. The set completely changed up. No rehearsed banter. (I always detest when I see a band a few times and the stage banter from one show to the next is identical. That ain’t rock & roll, that borders on Broadway musical.) No rehearsed moves. The energy they themselves create is what drives Ms. Loveless and company. The spontaneity of the moment seems to be the constant deciding factor as to how a line will be sung, a chord will be strummed, what lick will be played where on the neck. She is a vision to watch as the chaos explodes around her like a nighttime air raid on some war torn city. She’s telling the story, the story behind each song, in the moment with stunning urgency. If she doesn’t make it through the night, at least she will have been heard.

And if I were to compare these two shows to the acoustic performance I saw a few months back, I would simply say “Lydia Loveless, in any incarnation, is the closest thing rock & roll has to a future right now.”  Which I guess is the true answer to my friend’s question.

She deserves the keys to the kingdom. Give them to her now, or better yet, let her and the band storm the castle and take them. I’ll gladly sit back and enjoy the mayhem.

That’s what rock & roll is all about.