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The rural rock of the Silos



Silos leaders Walter Salas-Humara and Bob Rupe closed their recent show at Cabaret Metro with a strange cover--a thumping, cheerfully undifferentiated take on "One After 909," the very early (1963) Lennon-McCartney composition the Beatles disinterred for Let It Be. A lot of what the Silos are about these days is the Salas-Humara-Rupe partnership: their rhythm section is a pair of hired hands who are treated that way. "One After 909" was a nice (and modest, really--the song is nothing special) tip o' the hat to another, earlier friendship. The all-ages crowd at the Metro watched curiously. Twenty- five-year-old Beatles songs go right over kids' heads these days.

The song was the one British reference of the entire evening, which saw the Silos reunited with the Vulgar Boatmen, a band that has a tangled history with Salas- Humara and now is something of a protege group for him. Both groups are extravagantly and deeply American: The Silos have a nuanced mastery of the timeless feel of the road (Salas-Humara and Rupe make Born To Run-era Springsteen look like a positive homebody), and they speak in the laconic idiom of the everyman searcher. The Boatmen have similar roots, but are somehow more refined, more personally introspective and introverted. The Silos sing about the road, and the Vulgar Boatmen obsess about what pounds through your head as you drive. Both bands have a cozy intimacy with the history of American music; what each band does with it sets it apart from the other.

Briefly: Salas-Humara is Cuban; he met Bob Rupe while playing in various garage bands in Florida as a teenager. He split with Rupe to go to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he founded a band he christened the Vulgar Boatmen. One of Salas-Humara's teachers at Gainesville was one Robert Ray, an English prof with a strong interest in popular culture. Ray originally contributed artsy multimedia effects--light shows and such--to Boatmen concerts. Salas-Humara was only a part of the original band's creative trust, and eventually left to study art in Brooklyn. There he bumped into his old friend Bob Rupe. (An interesting parallel to the story of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who played together as children and then met more than a decade later on a bus.) The pair formed the Silos and a record company, Record Collect, which released the first two Silos records.

Robert Ray, meanwhile, took over the Vulgar Boatmen; years before he had gone to graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana, where he'd met another student, Dale Lawrence, who was interested in music as well. They formed a songwriting partnership, sending each other cassettes in the mail and working jointly on music and lyrics. Ray kept an intermittent version of the Boatmen going in Gainesville, but its live dates were infrequent because of the extramusical duties of the various members. Lawrence's bands in Indianapolis, however, were playing more and more Lawrence-Ray compositions; finally Lawrence named the Indianapolis aggregation the Vulgar Boatmen as well.

Ray and Salas-Humara had remained in touch too. (All of the Silos' records have minor contributions by Ray.) The first two Silos records, About Her Steps and Cuba, were major succes d'estime: each sold about 40 copies, but critics were creaming their jeans over the records' unadorned expositions and moody textures. After Cuba Salas-Humara recorded a solo album and went on an acoustic tour with his brother. (At Metro in late 1988 the pair did a lovely set that included a funny version of the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia" that the crowd responded to with about as much enthusiasm as their counterparts did two years later with "One After 909.") In 1989 Salas-Humara produced the first Vulgar Boatmen album, You and Your Sister, with Ray, and then busied himself with the long-delayed third Silos album, which was eventually released last month as The Silos, on major-label RCA.

The Silos is a huge leap of consolidation for the band. In the process, they leave behind some of the atmospheric manipulation of their first couple of records, but they pull off a couple of triumphs in exchange. The great attractions of About Her Steps and Cuba were the twists they forced rather straightforward country-rock expositions through. "Start the Clock," from the first album, conjures up misery and regret solely through the vacant rigor of the vocals; Salas-Humara's famous "Margaret," from Cuba, similarly made its mark with a ghostly steel guitar. Little touches like that give the songs a great deal of depth. I take them as evidence of the band's (comfortable) place in the healthy and adventurous postpunk Amer-indie rock scene. What's interesting about The Silos is that it doesn't sound like that at all. Produced by Peter Moore, who's overseen the Cowboy Junkies' recordings, and recorded with an almost acoustic immediacy, The Silos appears to be an attempt to reclaim the glories of country rock from the grave of Gram Parsons and the haunted souls of the Eagles, Neil Young, and the Allman Brothers Band. Neither Salas-Humara nor Rupe is tormented like Parsons, they wouldn't be caught dead boogying the way the Allmans sometimes did, and they're not interested in Youngian poesy either. But even someone like me, who came to consciousness under the punk aesthetic, can appreciate the uninflected yet passionate rurality that informed a huge chunk of the popular music in the early 1970s. The Silos' neat trick is carrying on this tradition close to 20 years on, and not sounding silly. They do it because they don't know how to do anything else.

Listen, for example, to the almost unadorned guitar figure of "Commodore Peter," Salas-Humara's unpretentious profile of a Caribbean water-taxi pilot: Rupe's guitar does a bang-up aural approximation of rippling water. This sort of stuff is hokey as hell, but you tend to trust their sensibilities, so you don't snicker. "Commodore Peter" has one of the record's best hooks, too, which doesn't hurt, and it ends with this mysterious verse:

The rest of the record is quite good. The pair do go awry at times: "Any Way You Choose Me" is an unconvincing Crazy Horse-ish rave up, and "You're the Only Story I Tell," Salas-Humara's duet with one Amy Allison, has a central lyrical figure that's a bit too writerly. But the two side-enders, "I'm Over You" and "Here's to You," both overcome their rather mundane titles and reach for something special. "I'm Over You" sounds like the Great Lost Eagles Song, even down to the bit of spitefulness in the lyrics, but it's about twice as fun as "Take It Easy" and has a terrific rolling-down-the-road coda. "Here's to You" starts out extremely quiet, as Salas-Humara strains to retain a conversational cadence in the lines. But then things get nice and loud, and Rupe comes blasting in with a guitar solo that's lots prettier than the one in "Free Bird."

All of this contrasts interestingly (for me, at least) with the Boatmen, who are trafficking in a much more oblique and self-referential style. Where the Silos have now demonstrated themselves to be supremely authentic, the Boatmen are playing around with what the postmodernists call "inauthenticity." You and Your Sister, as I've written before, is a riot of asides and homages to the blues, country and western, pop, and rock. On "Here's to You" Salas-Humara and Rupe bring their set closer on home with a "big" guitar solo and a lot of bombast, all of which is nice, and all of which works. The Boatmen, by contrast, finish their album up with "The Street Where You Live," which begins with the hilarious title reference to My Fair Lady and ends with Lawrence (or Ray, I can never tell which) moaning "Who do you love?" over and over, like a de-braggadocio'ed Ronnie Hawkins or an extremely forlorn Bo Diddley. Too, the Boatmen indulge in occasional wordplay that the Silos would find effete: one of my favorite moments on the recording is during "Margaret Says": "She asks me a word / I don't know right away / She says it's hard to pronounce / But it's easy to say." When you first hear Ray (or Lawrence) sing the thing, it sounds a little sexy, particularly with its overtones of Dylan's "Memphis Blues Again." ("She said you know I know about your debutante / But your debutante just knows what you need / And I know what you want.") Actually, like the Silos' "Margaret," the song is about a kid, and, like "Margaret," is named after Ray's daughter, who's not yet a teenager and already has had two of the coolest bands in the world name a song after her.

Back at the Metro, the Silos showed that postmodernism isn't everything. A Silos show is not a hugely spontaneous event--the set list changes not at all from night to night. And again, while the pair's rhythm section is introduced--Graham Maby, a Chicagoan, on bass, and drummer Brian Doherty (an earlier show I saw included a keyboardist as well)--there's a palpable distance between the frontmen and their backers. But there's a glow of assurance that hovers around both Salas-Humara and Rupe. The Silos haven't toured as a group for two full years; their last time out, they looked and acted like your typical indie ensemble, headlining a small, half-filled alternative club. Now they're cloaked in confidence, and they act like a world-class rock band, which is what they've become. Rupe is stocky, with an angular face and hair as long as Neil Young's ever war; Salas-Humara is lean and ascetic looking. Occasionally the two grin at each other amid the noise.

One of the things that gives the band such texture is Rupe's songwriting, which isn't extensive (just one or two songs each album), but which holds its own against Salas-Humara's precision. Rupe has a broad, blues-soaked voice; sometimes he drawls like John Fogerty, and he's at his best when he's limning the visions of a grandiose dreamer:

We'll go out of town

Maybe down south

And if we're lucky the southwest

We won't have to work, well not very hard

And anyway, we'll have a good time.

Rupe's some guitarist as well. On "Anyway You Choose Me," from the new album, a creditable blast of feedback and whine segued the group onto Cuba's percolating "Just This Morning." Salas-Humara's pretty "Porque No" (it's a Spanish love song to his wife) followed. The show ended with a brief and lovely "Margaret" and "One After 909." Everybody went home happy.

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