by Jordan Green
For four guys who love music, write songs and faithfully get together to rehearse, being on the tiny stage at Luna Lounge & Tiki Bar with friends and family crowded around the bar is the fulfillment of a dream — one that is continuously evolving like globules of multicolored oil and water between two plates of glass.
Well, mostly onstage. More on that later.
The band is called SubQ and their sound is deliberately lo-fi, it seems, full of choppy chord progressions, left-field guitar solos and barked vocals. It’s timeless rock and roll that nonetheless falls way outside of the mainstream. It could be garage-psych rock circa 1966, industrial proto-punk from the mid-’70s, or ’80s underground along the lines of Dream Syndicate and Black Flag.
For a group of veteran musicians performing officially as SubQ since 2006 but collaborating in various configurations for the better part of two decades, the little bar felt right on a recent Saturday night. Formerly a venue known as Elliott’s Revue, Luna Lounge & Tiki Bar was resurrected about a year ago. With friendly bar staff and beachy décor, it’s exactly what it sounds like, except that red lights give the stage a somewhat hellish feel. The small stage affords the venue a sense of intimacy that comes from close and sometimes unscripted encounters between performers and audience.
The four musicians, who share vocal duties — Jeff Mills and Fred Hall on guitars, Ryan Harrison on bass and Shannon Murphy on drums —played ardently, not entirely concerned about whether their product meets customer approval. Sisters Kathy and Rebecca Clark — longtime fixtures on the arts and film scene in the Triad — were soon joined by bass player and Winston music scene luminary Andy “Freakin” Mabe. The trio held down the end of the bar primed for good-natured heckling, if robotic stop-motion dancing counts. Young, well-dressed couples who looked like they might be grad students or tech workers staggered in occasionally, either downing their drinks and moving on to the next stop or sticking around for the party.
The stage wasn’t quite big enough to accommodate the band, and Hall actually performed beside it, directly facing the Clark sisters. A music stand holding a setlist augmented with chord progressions gave him the appearance of a librarian or a scientist on the verge of a major breakthrough. With close-cropped hair, Mills had a more athletic countenance, as he lunged into slashing guitar chords. On bass, the bespectacled Harrison had a gentle and pensive look. And with peroxided hair tied back in a ponytail, Murphy looked like a surfer. His drumming both propelled the music and imposed discipline on it.
Six songs in, they worked through an original called “In My Dreams” built around chunky bar chords with muted phrasing, followed by a cover of the Beatles’ “Savoy Truffle” that sounded like a lost garage classic from the Ohio suburbs. Then onto a grungy take on John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” with heavy reverb on Mills’ vocals.
After receiving acknowledgement from Mills, Mabe started singing back to the band, responding to Mills’ dour proclamations with Ted Nugent-like yelps. And then during the last song of the set, “Nuh Uh,” Mabe rejoined Mills’ wounded lover kiss-off with a disapproving parent’s “No, no.”
In SubQ’s case, the listener’s impression does not necessarily align with the band’s agenda. The charm of the band’s rough edges may in fact be an unintended side effect of their process. I was taken aback when Harrison shared that he and Mills have logged significant miles as fans on the jam-band festival circuit, and that he admires the music of the Grateful Dead and Phish, so much so that Harrison even named his son after Dead bassist Phil Lesh.
When I mentioned this later to Murphy, he emphatically told me that he absolutely does not share his bandmates’ love of jam music. He tends more towards the get-in-get-the-job-done-and-get-out school of rock.
“No song would ever end if they didn’t have me,” he said when we conferred on the sidewalk after the gig.
The influence of Neil Young & Crazy Horse is more readily apparent in the cathartic and gnarled nature of SubQ’s three-chord romps. Or, consider how Nirvana developed their sound through endless hours of jamming, and you start to get the picture.
And Hall, who also records under the solo moniker Gentlemaniac, has a way of committing to the scary emotional edge of a vocal that’s reminiscent of some of Young’s fevered ruminations in songs like “Down By the River.” Hall’s song “Don’t Tell My Mama,” which voices the regret of a guilt-ridden murderer, mines the same vein of folk tradition.
After midnight, as the concert drew to a close, they mused on whether to finish out with a song called “Five More Beers” before settling on a sonically delicious cover of the Flaming Lips song “Talkin’ Bout the Smiling Death Porn Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever).”
“You should write a song called, ‘Five More Beers,’” an amiable bar patron suggested.
“That is a song,” Rebecca Clark tells him. Then she adds, “Play ‘Rock Lobster.’”
The unidentified patron doubles down.
“Play ‘Rock Lobster,’ and I’ll buy you a damn lobster,” he said.
“Rock Lobster” might eventually work into their repertoire of hundreds of songs, but for this particular night SubQ stuck with the Flaming Lips.