Saturday, May 14, 2011

So Right

Me Like Bees and Reasons to Believe

So, every once in a great while, a band comes along with a call so hard and urgent that I find I have to write a response, even when I’m speechless. Me Like Bees has been calling hard a while now... And for a late 70s generation punk fan who finds himself listening to R&B and norteno as much as anything these days, the inspiration comes from a somewhat surprising source--four guys who started playing together in Joplin, Missouri; three high school football players from Kansas City, and the fourth, the drummer, a California kid whose dad used to gig with members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.

That last bit may be something that makes some sense. The football does too…in a way. Though indie is the label they’ll be given, the band is not your typical effete alterna-rock band. In fact, the first time I saw them, their blue collar, punch-to-the-gut, sensibility made me wonder how come they weren’t playing straight up metal.

But I suppose that dates me. The first time I checked them out online and found a live video of them doing Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade” I had a piece of that answer, if not the whole story. During that first show I saw, they had played Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” which lent another piece to the puzzle. Since then, I’ve heard them cover Gnarls Barkley and singer Luke Sheafer freestyle a little Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z.

I should understand as well as anyone. I’m from a town in Oklahoma not far from where this band formed, and if I’d made a band at their age, I would have been doing Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen (who was still obscure around those parts then), Public Image Ltd, and the Clash, with maybe some refrains from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” thrown in post 1982….same difference. If I've learned anything over the years, creativity takes many forms and draws on many kinds of inspiration, often from directions that are attractive because they have nothing to do with one’s roots. And, first and foremost, a band is a band to break out of whatever box it may be handed.

Anyway, I fell for these guys the first time I saw them because they were both funky and heavy, and they had hooks, and they managed to convey a sense of humor without losing any of their sense of gravity. That was a show at the Coda, and the house was packed that night with people close to the stage who seemed to know every song, and a larger house that, despite not having heard a note before, was as riveted as I was.

That was five shows back (I saw my sixth tonight), and they only grow more fascinating each time out. I’ve seen them play to packed houses and empty houses. Tonight was a relatively empty house, a 7:30 set starting off an evening packed with too many bands at the end of a day of Westport pub crawling that found most people outside at that hour or catching a meal.

It didn’t affect how the band played…well, in any obvious way. Lead singer Luke Sheafer started in with the lilting verses of one of their newer songs, “Joseph Jones,” and bass player Asher Poindexter immediately began angling in on him with a full-bodied dance to match his rhythm. Drummer Tim Cote punched hard as the song built to a crescendo, and guitar player Pete Burton offered one shimmering line after another until something that started off sounding fragile, even diffident, became a powerhouse assault.

Such dynamics are typical of Me Like Bees, but the band defies any simple stylistic description. Poindexter and Burton both play their guitars in very percussive ways, calling to mind funk from James Brown to Gang of Four to whatever contemporary bands they actually nick. Cote keeps a supple rhythm but bangs the drums hard. And singer Luke Sheafer, well, he makes sure no one in the house doubts for one second his conviction or its urgency.

When the band launches into “Lazarus,” Sheafer takes breaks from the verses to mouth wordless refrains at Poindexter who wordlessly shouts back. Poindexter has this sort of body-twisting raindance stomp he employs while working his bass, while Sheafer twists, turns and widens his eyes, then shouts and cries and growls into the mic. Meanwhile, Burton peels off one great riff after another, playing the relatively stoic, mild-mannered role to the side (someone has to anchor this anarchy).

But nothing really anchors this music except for the rhythmic pulse that binds the band together. At times, Burton’s guitar seems to be starting flash fires off to the right and Poindexter’s bass throws gasoline with quick emphatic runs from the left. The entirety of the band’s sound swirls like some cosmic storm, shimmering light and tone colors beyond imagination. And Poindexter has a sly smile, and Sheafer’s beaming wildly, and the whole band looks like they’re aware yet nonchalant about the fact that they’ve, yet again, cut a space that extends from, in this case, the back of the Riot Room to Alpha Centauri.

And that’s enough…. Nevermind the resonance of these lyrics—about being the prey of capitalist sensory overload (“Iconica”) or about being a working stiff who gains nothing in particular for a job well done (“Good Machine”) or about a girlfriend with a “sweet left hook” (“She”) or about finding hope precisely when all is lost (“Doubt”). This is a band that has ample reason to mean it when Sheafer shouts, as he does on the Ep closer, “There’s a Man,” “As long as I have a choice, I’ll be raising my hand up/I’ll be begging to differ.” This is a band with something to say, many things to say.

So, I’ll be sorry when I have to miss next Friday’s Kansas City show at the Coda. But I’ll be playing them on my long drive to Chicago, and thinking about all the things I said here and what I need to say next. Because, though the afterglow I feel right now will be gone, I’ll remember what I’ve learned five times over, as I’ve gone back to one show after another wondering if they are really that good…

The answer is not simply yes. Each time it seems they’ve gotten better, or maybe I’m just better learning how to hear. Either way, I can’t bear to miss what’s next.

To see and hear for yourself--