I shouldn’t review a Schooner show. And I shouldn’t start a review of a band’s show by talking about myself. And I certainly should not make myself the subject of the first four sentences of a review about a band. But, I just did.
Schooner, based in the enviably fertile and great music scene of North Carolina’s Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) has existed for years. And years. They’ve always been a great band. Even when they weren’t a band, but were founder and leader Reid Johnson’s unfiltered musical ideas on warbly four-track recordings. Somehow — I still don’t understand why — they haven’t ever become as big as they are supposed to be. But, somehow, they stay great, and probably get better, and don’t show that they care that some of their NC music peers graduate to professional or near-professional status all around them while Schooner remains the band that everyone knows, likes, and respects, but that stays “local.” I’m sure that they do care, but they don’t show it, and that garbage somehow never gets in the way of the music.
This brings me to their most recent show in Brooklyn at the cozy Cameo Gallery in Williamsburg. I also caught their previous appearance at Cameo. That was a weird night. I pretend-mugged Johnson in a bodega before the show. And there weren’t as many people there as I had expected or hoped. And one of the people was a genius at the bar shouting things that were vaguely rude and aggressive but not quite rude and aggressive enough that someone could go over and shut him up. (Plus it seemed like he knew the bartender.) That was a mid-week show. This recent show, on the other hand, was on a Friday night. I had recently attended another show at Cameo that was packed, and I expected there to be a good crowd.
The size of the crowd this time around, though an improvement over the last time, disappointed me. Schooner deserved better after a miserable day on I-95. But they took the stage after Air Waves finished its excellent set and delivered the most Schooneristic show I have ever seen. And I’ve seen many, including packed shows down in NC in front of their local devotees.
There’s nothing trendy about Schooner’s music, which is one of the reasons I like it so much and that it isn’t as popular as it should be. The music is pure Schooner, nothing else. It’s Southern, but not at all country. It’s Southern in a way that translates well to an urban hipster audience. It’s exuberant at times and forlorn at others, and the recent performance at Cameo displayed all of this. Cameo drenched Johnson’s vocals, per his request, in reverb. And he drenched his own weird green guitar in reverb and tape-emulating delay. There was dreaminess aplenty. But there was also genuine joy and confidence and sweat. The musical and social interplay between Johnson and his bandmates — bassist Nick Jaeger, tambourinist and vocalist Maria Albani, and drummer Josh Carpenter — was jovial and true. The banter with the audience was warm and friendly and appreciative. The audience responded in kind. Johnson’s vocal delivery was superb. (That sounds corny, but it’s true!) And the rest of the band joined in where appropriate to add the necessary vocal accompaniments, at times resulting in pure, ear-splitting raucousness. Albani doesn’t always tour with the group, but her vocals and presence enhanced the performance tremendously. In short, they rocked. Schooner played like there were 300 people crammed in the room. They did what a band is supposed to do. Only the music was much better than that of most other bands.
After Schooner finished and had moved their gear from the stage, some guys began loading their equipment onto the stage. I said to Johnson, “Is there another band? I though that you were last.” He said that those were DJs or something. I envisioned hundreds of hipsters, who had skipped Schooner’s set, crowding into the room to listen to whatever prerecorded hipster crap the guys would be spinning. I grew angry and muttered something about “kids these days.” Johnson just grinned and walked away with his guitar case in hand.