In little more than 30 minutes, and with a mere 11 revved-up songs, the Von Bondies marked a long-awaited return to the stage with a triumphant if low-key club gig. Fortunately, when vocalist Jason Stollsteimer sang, "I'm a broken man, this here's my broken band," to a packed, appreciative crowd, it wasn't a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It's been more than two years since the last live show, three years since the major label debut, and with three new members in his band, Stollsteimer may have felt he had something to prove although a hipster club in New York's Lower East side seemed a slightly odd choice for a relaunch dry-run. But the affable if recalcitrant Stollsteimer has little to worry about, if the two new songs presented from the band's forthcoming release Love, Hate and Then There's You (in addition to strong renditions of some winning tunes from previous discs, including the can't-shake-it single "C'mon C'mon") were any indication.
Kicking off with the portentous title track from their 2001 indie release Lack of Communication, the Von Bondies blasted through their set with little chitchat or dramatics, but a good dose of likable raw power, steeped in equal parts garage and power-pop.
With only two members left from the last lineup Stollsteimer and drummer Don Blum the three new Bondies proved discrete, if not all equally appealing. Guitarists Alicia Gbur and Matt Lannoo of Detroit's Nice Device, along with bassist Leeann Banks, are the new kids. Although Gbur is billed as keyboardist, she spent more time on the six-string, and she and Lannoo despite logging previous onstage time together proved somewhat stoic and uninspiring as performers and players. In contrast, Banks, rocking a bit of a kewpie doll/Christine Ricci (circa Black Snake Moan) vibe, actually seemed to be enjoying herself, providing an animated presence and playing that meshed well with Stollsteimer's Evan Dando/Thurston Moore indie-cute-cred vibe.
Standouts included the swampy, epic and excellent "No Regrets," the arena-rock worthy (thanks to Gbur on keyboards and Blum's thunderous drumming) "Broken Man," and "The Fever," boasting Gbur and Banks' strong and sassy chorus vocals, all from 2004's major-label debut, Pawn Shoppe Heart. The glittery, Runaways-styled "Not That Social" is a personal guilty pleasure and utterly infectious, while the set closer, "It Came From Japan," is likewise kitschy but irresistible.
Only two new songs from the already completed Love, Hate and Then There's You were debuted, both also currently available on the band's MySpace site. The anthemic "21st Birthday" boasts an insinuating riff that's at times oddly reminiscent of Springsteen's "Cadillac Ranch," meshed with a soaring, poignant, almost Cheap Trick-y timelessness, while "Pale Bride" (co-written with hit-maker/producer Butch Walker), although textbook Bondies guitar-rock, wasn't as memorable or hooky.
There's no doubt Stollsteimer is a songwriter with heart, soul, grit and smarts, and Pawn Shoppe Heart remains an immensely likable, no-filler garage-rock gem. That said, being anointed with the "next big thing" blessing/curse/tag, before taking four years between records and then switching out almost an entire lineup, could easily derail the staunchest of bands and fans. The question remains whether they're special enough to live up to their own clear promise and critical expectations. This show didn't answer that question definitively. Nevertheless, with first-show jitters now behind them, and Love, Hate and Then There's You on track for 2008, things are looking brighter for the newly minted quintet. The Von Bondies boast "We are kamikazes aiming straight for your heart..." and at this show, at least, their aim was generally true.Katherine Turman is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org