A reunion show can be one of two experiences: a bittersweet reminder of a sound long missed or a shameless flogging of something mercifully put to pasture. For those in New York and Boston who’ve already put down their dollars for a chance to see Letters to Cleo (featured above) return to the stage, you’re in luck. This return is a triumphant one.
LTC charted after their first single “Here & Now” appeared on a promotional soundtrack for soapy drama Melrose Place, earning the band the dubious honor of prototype for the primetime payola scheme now running under Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, etc. But a pocket of fans looking for middle ground between Nirvana and Madonna clustered around Letters to Cleo, and with the release of the surprisingly crunchy and perfectly melodious follow-up Wholesale Meats & Fish, MTV “buzz clip” addicts bought in. The more radio-friendly third album Go didn’t perform as expected. Letters parted ways with Revolution Records in 1997 and then with each other (officially) in 2000.
Considering the recent freezing over of Hell that has Led Zeppelin and The Police cashing in big, the circumstances bringing Letters to Cleo back to life are more auspicious. Original members Mike Eisenstein, Greg McKenna, Stacy Jones, and Kay Hanley, with the addition of bassist Joe Klompus, played an impromptu set for a benefit concert in Boston. It was that experience (rather than the promise of fat wads of merch money) that inspired this four date tour.
If Saturday night at the Roxy is an indication, the joy LTC found at that Boston benefit is about to hit critical mass.
Opening act The Oohlas (featured above) were an apropos selection fronted by Olivia Stone, a delightful liability like a Sunset Strip version of Dottie from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Greg Eklund, formerly of Everclear. Stone admitted she was told to shut up between songs (“fucked that up already!”) after letting rip a huge burp right into the microphone. Then she called out Trent from Pink Is The New Blog, standing right at center stage. Thankfully she has the voice to match the attitude, a bold alto with cat-like vowels.
After a slightly-longer-than-usual wait between acts, the curtain yanked upwards on the Roxy’s small stage and a packed house of chuck taylor’s were stomping to “Demon Rock.” At the start the band was all business and no chatter. They played like they had something to prove, likely to themselves more than the audience. A thunderous run on “Veda Very Shining,” one of the standouts of the night, appeared to relieve the pressure. They all shot inscrutable glances at each other before singer Hanley turned to the crowd and beamed.
“Like ridin’ a bike…” She chuckled.
Lead guitarist Mike Eisenstein hasn’t aged a day. Stacy Jones’ time with American Hi-Fi has kept him in top, deafening form. Greg McKenna and Joe Klompus were subdued by comparison, but seemed to be enjoying themselves. The ten year hiatus has been kind to each member, most of all to Kay Hanley. Steady gigs have boosted her power and range. Now she cuts easily through the massive racket that remains one of their hallmarks. Check out the clip of their performance on Conan O’Brien via their myspace page to see how they started.
After settling in, Hanley called to the bar for a Johnny Walker Black. Eisenstein pulled out a pocket flask and passed it to her. She seemed genuinely touched. It was one of several brief moments of camaraderie and humor that dotted the evening. Eisenstein was leaping across the stage like a teenager, with Jones and Hanley entertaining each other during his solos. Hanley winked and waved to friends and family in the audience as she took her swagger to the toe-edge of the stage. She announced one number as “Achy Breaky Heart,” a sly reference to her recent stint as a backup singer for Miley Cyrus, before an energetic “Here & Now” (they had reconciled with the tune as well as “Co-Pilot,” an earnestly smitten pop tune they rarely played live).
Raucous cheers first brought Eisenstein and Hanley back for an encore, the genuinely unrehearsed kind. Halfway through “Little Rosa” Hanley realized they were missing a guitar solo and cringed as she vocalized it. Eisenstein promptly tripped on his own trick chords and brought it to a grinding halt. They picked up the chorus and finished to encouraging applause. The rest of the group joined them for a cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and a final rally with one of their wildest and earliest.
Witnessing a band in top form is a thrill. Watching them love every minute of the performance, every bit as much as their fans is something else altogether. In their heyday Letters to Cleo’s music had a raw, careless energy coursing beneath a veneer of sugary harmony that was too pretty for some and too loud for others. Now they’re revisiting it with a potent mixture of veteran musicianship and renewed infatuation that puts most of their arena-rocking contemporaries to shame.
Worth noting is a moment that came before the halfway mark. It was a bit cute, and it passed quickly, but it was the highlight of the show. The band sank their teeth into the opening chords of “Awake” and then Hanley started to sing:
I guess it’s been awhile
And a long time, too
Everything’s still the same and…
So are you…
Photos from the show:
Review and photos by Artie of ScreenCrave