Scud Mountain Boys
Bowery Ballroom, New York, January 13
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Nearly 20 years ago, the Scud Mountain Boys emerged from Northampton, Massachusetts just as the No Depression era was setting in. Like many like-minded souls, the group had grown up on punk and college rock (Northampton being smack dab in the Five Colleges region), but had decided to apply the adventuresome nature of their musical upbringing to more rustic tones. Indeed, as the Appalachian ode of their moniker suggests, they probably had more in common with the Louvin Brothers than Sebadoh.

The Scud Mountain Boys recorded just three records—Pine Box and Dance the Night for the tiny Chunk label and Massachusetts with Sub Pop—before disbanding in 1997. And while the last of those gained the band some notoriety and principal songwriter Joe Pernice went on to greater recognition as leader of the Pernice Brothers, it is probably accurate to say that when they called it a day the band faded back into the obscurity from whence it had come.

As such, it’s unsurprising that the Scuds—Perncie, Stephen Desaulniers, Bruce Tull and Tom Shea—have reunited for a handful of shows with little fanfare. Unconnected to a reissue campaign (though Pernice has put the band’s CDs back into circulation on his Ashmont label) or an ATP appearance, the regrouping was partially sparked by a friend’s death, though one gets the feeling that it has never been a question of why or if, but how and when.

After a set from John Cunningham, who was accompanied by Joe’s brother Bob, the Scud Mountain Boys set up on the Bowery Ballroom’s stage much as they had when they first started: gathered around a table, dimly lit by a small lamp and littered with beer bottles and pills, which were probably more likely to have been something prescribed than anything illicit. Pernice announced that it had been 15 years since all four members had shared a stage and it had been even longer since I’d seen them together, when they opened for the Ass Ponys at the much smaller Brownies in 1995.

But aside from Pernice flubbing “Grudge Fuck” and having to start over (surprising given it has remained a staple of his live sets), one couldn’t tell that it had been so long. Beginning with “Peter Graves’ Anatomy,” the four old friends seemed to settle in to playing with one another pretty quickly, Pernice’s finger-picking, Hull’s slide tones, Desaulniers soft bass notes and Shea’s mandolin strumming melding into their well-worn spots.

Some of the night’s highlights came early on with the haunting “Silo,” the beatific “Freight of Fire” and the languid “Massachusetts,” on which Shea took to the drums. Pernice cracked jokes throughout the night, but it didn’t dispel the frequently maudlin headspace that many of the band’s songs occupy. “In a Ditch,” which describes a drug-induced car wreck in detail both literally and emotionally, was rendered with the aching beauty of the original, while “Penthouse in the Woods,” which Pernice said was about finding the goldmine of a garbage bag of waterlogged porn, was lithe and poignant. Best perhaps, though, was “Liquor Store.” Sung by Desaulniers, who took Pernice’s guitar for the song, it embodied the Scud Mountain Boys’ ethos of timeless themes and melodies cast with the grit of the stripmall age.

The band finished up their set proper with “One Hand” and returned after a brief respite for an encore: their haunting take on Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (coincidentally the top song in the land the week I was born). And that was it. No additional songs or returns to the stage, and far too casual an ending for what —at least to those in attendance—seemed at least somewhat monumental. No matter, the night was special, and only time will tell if it was the start or end of something.