The Local Legend And The Kids

Joe Lally And Capillary Action Jan. 22 At The Black Cat

What's most striking about Joe Lally's set backstage at the Black Cat on Jan. 22 is how thrilled Capillary Action must have been to play with him. It's hard to imagine that Capillary Action, a young band comprised of tight musicians, has had such an opportunity like this one to back up and play in support of a legend of alternative and independent rock music.

Lally's name may not be a household one -- maybe even the least-known name from his band, Fugazi -- but his rolling bass was the most signature sound of that revered quartet, with the possible exception of Ian MacKaye's howling scream. Lally's debut solo album, "There To Here," is much more mellow and sparse than Fugazi's post-hardcore, but it demonstrates how essential Lally was to that band's groove, and on it, Lally continues to carry the political torch Fugazi held so high.

Much like the album, Lally's live shows are essentially jam sessions based on his bass and lyrics, with friends sitting in and offering musical support when they are available to participate, which gives his sets a very improvisational feel. It wasn't quite supposed to be that way for this tour. Lally planned to have Zu -- an experimental, improvisational noise-jazz band from Italy back him up for the extent of the tour -- but due to a family emergency, that group dropped out. As Lally stated during the set, he joined Capillary Action, the other scheduled opening act, a day before the tour to ready them to fill in as his band. Two weeks into the tour, they seemed to have worked out excellent arrangements for Lally's songs.

From the opener, a new song -- newer, even, than those on the still-fresh debut released in October -- called "Skin and Bone," Lally's bass was immediately recognizable from his Fugazi days, though again, much more subdued and sparse. With their leanings toward both jazz and hardcore, Capillary Action proved a good fit for Lally -- the drummer's avant garde brushing of his kit; the keyboardist's offbeat, fusion keystrokes and pounds; the guitarist's quirky plucking; and the bassist's other instrument, the trombone, which even lent a couple of solos to the set.

The songs, while always maintaining a cool, haunting groove, alternated from mellow fusion to ethereal post rock to dreamy kraut rock to the blaxploitation-rhythm of "Like a Baby." And they all could be sketches for Fugazi songs. "Factory Warranty" would fit in flawlessly on "Instrument," Fugazi's 1999 documentary soundtrack collection of odds and sods. Lally's bass bumps along simply and softly, and the quiet repeated refrain of "A gun is made to be used," is unforgettable. Although Lally's vocals could not be described as strong, his voice is adept enough for these messages and these songs, tender and introspective.

As on that song, politics take center stage thematically. "Pick a war, any war/the reasoning all seems the same," he sings on "Pick a War," taking direct aim at Iraq and the U.S.'s military history. More generally, Lally attacks the powers that be and the gatekeepers when he sings "This song is for the living dead." At times the lyrics do seem obvious, but that's Lally making sure his message isn't lost, even when his message is simply "F--- you."

Before the set closer, Lally said he was playing a lot of new stuff, implying that his solo career is just kicking off and should be fruitful, because he didn't know when he'd get a chance to play those songs with the boys from Capillary Action again. The stage promptly cleared except for Lally and the keyboard player, putting a lot of pressure on the latter, and the two ended the show with the simple and beautiful "Pieces of String."

The members of Capillary Action had restrained themselves for Lally's set. Their own slot at times demonstrated why they fit in well behind Lally, but it was less soft avant garde jazz than loud and raucous math rock with prog rock organ. Again, they are great musicians with multiple influences, but genre-hopping bogged them down. For a while, their alternating between mellow jazz to near-hardcore rock was a compelling mix, particularly as the drummer guided them through, demonstrating his exceptional jazz skills and often letting out his inner Dave Lombardo with speed-metal-worthy thunder. But eventually while listening to a set like this, one wonders, "Is this actually good or just ambitious and different?" And at times the jamming seemed out of place and schizophrenic. ("Were they just playing post-klezmer?") Nevertheless, when they were heavy, they were terrific, and when they caught a good melody, they were engaging. And when they fell in place behind Lally, they were near perfect. For a night at least.

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