Finding a basement show in New Brunswick takes some couth. It’s like the line in Swingers “You tell a chick you’ve been some place, it’s like bragging that you know how to find it.” The speakeasy romanticism of the whole local scene is its exclusivity, the delightful feeling you’re getting away with something the outside world wouldn’t understand. But you don’t need a password to get into underground venues like Funk Palace – just a facebook message with the address and a few bucks for the touring band. The building is typical nondescript off-campus housing. There‘s no indication that a show is happening except for a solitary porch light and a muffled warble coming from the basement. Inside, the warble becomes a wail. The two guitarists in Harpoon Forever kick up their volume pedals unexpectedly mid-song and the crowd starts to rock a little harder. In the dim glow of dangling Christmas lights, 20 or so longhaired college kids with doo-wop eyeglasses are dancing and playing air guitar along with the band’s heavy, bluesy solos.
Original songs like “Summer Vacation” are what the band does best – a mixture of compelling chords and grungy breakdowns that’s reminiscent of garage rock revival bands like Cage the Elephant. But despite Harpoon Forever’s tendency to keep songs under 3 minutes, the quartet also has enough classic rock influence to dig into longer jams. Case in point: the epic show closer, “Paddle to the Sea”, which starts out with bouncy alt-country strumming but then dissolves into building repetitions of krautrock drumbeats structuring Sonic Youth-style guitar mayhem. Sure, you can’t hear the lyrics over the P.A. but the sweaty exuberance of the singer and his hipster cowboy style say enough.
After the show, I walk a few blocks to another house, Titan’s Rest, where southern Connecticut band Fugue is making a stop on their 2-week tour. Outside, people are sitting on the driveway peering into the basement windows like stray cats. It’s not a packed house but it’s so hot inside that the girl drummer Alexa remarks, “I’m gonna pass out” with a look like she means it.
After a short break and some water, Alexa nods her head and kicks off the next song with an aggressive prog rock beat that sounds like early The Mars Volta. When the three guitars begin to fade in with lyrical melodies and the singer triggers a sample of birdcalls, it’s only to lure the audience into a false sense of security. Songs like “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” prove that this band is all about contrast: clean tones are juxtaposed with distorted ones, soft sections suddenly burst into raucous thrashing, and the lead lines play tug-of-war with the rhythm section. With a name like Fugue it’s no surprise that most of the band’s catalogue is instrumental, but some songs feature vocals that provide emotional context and sound like tribal yells laced with Portishead-style effects.
When the band finishes their set and I walk back out into the sultry night of late July, it feels like air conditioning compared to the sauna I was just in. Summer basement shows in New Brunswick are not for the faint hearted, but with bands like Fugue and Harpoon Forever on the scene it seems like things are only going to get hotter.