Sensory Overload: Fort Shame and Whoa Nellie

From the December 27, 2011 edition

Three days before Christmas seems like the right time for the music that graced Ace of Cups last Thursday. It was a night of no-frills rock ’n’ roll, gutsy stuff that went down like comfort food.

Two bands were on hand, both comprising Columbus rock lifers. There was a kinship born from decades of making clamor and downing shots in bars like this one. Both bands decided, unbeknownst to each other, to cover the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”

I caught only the tail end of Whoa Nellie’s set, but hot damn, Bob Starker and his crew were fun personified, prone to kicking out sing-along bar rock that rendered Springsteen all but unnecessary. Starker even blared some Clemons-worthy sax.

They played the celebratory sort of music you expect to hear in movie scenes where old friends pass pints down the bar and sing together. How could they not have covered the Pogues? A touch of honky-tonk was percolating, too. I never saw Starker’s now-defunct Sovines, but I’m glad he continued to make music that merits raising your glass long enough for me to experience it.

Next up was Fort Shame, which brings together two of the city’s finest songwriters, Sue Harshe of indie rock pioneers Scrawl, and Todd May, frontman for notable alt-country projects The Lilybandits and Mooncussers and the guitarist who took Lydia Loveless’ band to another level.

May’s guitar playing was just as revelatory with Fort Shame, a free-flowing dim neon mangle that appropriately tattered the seams of the duo’s otherwise tight songwriting. Employing the standard John-and-Paul twin songwriters model, Harshe and May traded gravelly lead vocals and frequently lent each other roughshod harmonies.

Style-wise, they bridged Harshe’s jangly, R.E.M.-inspired college rock with May’s post-Uncle Tupelo roots rock, finding a common denominator in Paul Westerberg’s uncouth big-hearted pop. Like Westerberg’s Replacements, they veered from straight pop sounds (Harshe played a very ’80s-sounding electric keyboard) to cacophonous finales without regard.

They ended on a monster called “Don’t Tell Me How to Lose My Mind,” which reminded me what a neat trick it can be to deploy Little Richard’s frantic piano-pounding in a minor key. May got super raw, grabbing the mic and moaning violently. Harshe chimed in with coy Kim Deal harmonies. There’s no need to relive past glories when you’re still making music this vital.