Enjoying shock therapy with the Spider Bags

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Clark Blomquist, Dan McGee, Rock Forbes and Steve Oliva
Clark Blomquist, Dan McGee, Rock Forbes and Steve Oliva

by Jordan Green

A couple verses and a chorus into the joyous barrage of chords and rueful vocals that comprise “Simona La Ramona,” Spider Bags frontman Dan McGee stopped suddenly and apologized.

“You know how you learn so many songs and your memory bank just gets overloaded?” he asked. He solicited assistance from the audience and his fellow band members, to no avail, promising it wouldn’t happen again, before recalling the elusive lyric and resuming.

The purported gaffe two songs into the band’s frenetic Aug. 9 set, which began just around midnight at Krankies Coffee in Winston-Salem, turned out to be a stunt — the Triangle Music blog reported that McGee had forgotten the lyrics to the same song during an in-store appearance in Raleigh to promote the band’s new Merge Records release, Frozen Letter, only a week earlier.

The gambit serves as both a clever and generous invitation to the audience to tear down the proverbial barrier that separates the band from the fans, and celebrate a collective exorcism of demons. A New Jersey native steeped in a musical lineage that includes both Springsteen and the Ramones, McGee relocated to Chapel Hill in 2005 and started the second iteration of his band Spider Bags. Over time, he and his band have flirted with country textures and psychedelic levitations, but an unflagging energy and total commitment to the song form a throughline for Spider Bags’ music.

“The thing you’ve got to balance is what you articulate and what you leave up to chance,” McGee mused on the porch at Krankies in the misty, early-morning hours after the set.

Spider Bags in its current iteration has soldiered through four albums with a famously interchangeable lineup, a residual consequence of McGee’s transition from Jersey to Carolina and part of a process of building up and boiling down. The current lineup has been pared down to McGee, bass player Steve Oliva and drummer Rock Forbes, with Clark Blomquist joining on guitar after the release of the new album and logging his fourth gig with the Krankies show.

Given that the band is essentially a vehicle for McGee’s vision, it’s remarkable how cohesive the band functions as a live unit, with the brotherly bonds that were the hallmark of great rock bands of the ’70s more than the assembly of players that characterizes most indie-rock bands today. Intuitively or spiritually, Oliva’s bass playing seemed to burrow into the grooves under McGee’s guitar attack. Forbes played like a beast, wrestling the songs and signaling subtle shifts at will. And McGee noted that Blomquist, who added singeing slide guitar to a couple numbers, got the job after attesting that he knew how to play the whole album and a good chunk of the band’s previous repertoire.

The cohesion in the music is evidently a reflection of the band members’ personal mutual regard. McGee exchanged hugs with Oliva after finishing the set, and then with Forbes after peeling off a wad of bills as his portion of the payout for the night and reimbursement for T-shirt printing.

The band’s recent recorded output from Frozen Letter and its forerunner Shake My Head, which formed the backbone of the Krankies setlist, showcases wry, literary evocations of losers scraping the margins and country-tinged garage rock that casts over wide stylistic territory. But live, Spider Bags is an infectious rock-and-roll combo, piling jangly chords on rhythmic propulsion, with McGee’s vocals careening from deadpan to falsetto. Their music combines smart chord progressions, energetic execution, with an off-note here or there, but no filler.

Rallied by McGee’s effusive energy — off- as well as onstage — the band charged through their set, expertly beginning each new song with hardly any break from its predecessor. In “Summer of ’79” from Frozen Letter, as McGee sang, “Why you wanna be a Rolling Stone?/ Why you think your daddy’s the king of rock and roll? You weren’t born in ’79, you weren’t there, you weren’t alive,” the band seemed to summon “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” on a mutant short-wave transmission.

Articulated and smart as the band is, both lyrically and melodically, they concede nothing to age in their energy. They displayed a ferocity on a song like “Friday Night” from Shake My Head worthy of the tuneful aggression of first-wave punk purveyors like the Pagans and the Dead Boys.

McGee received periodic electric shocks through his guitar during the show, but displayed good humor while staying on task despite the jarring interruptions.

After the show, as Forbes prepared to head home, McGee accepted an invitation to join an after-party around the block.

“I need to cut the electricity with tequila,” he said. “It’s in all the doctors’ manuals.”