KNABLE GAZING: Mel and The Tall Boys in the Delta of Rockwood
An experiential concert review
I’ve never felt so uncool as when I stood in the back of the venue where I played in my band’s halcyon days, the only medically masked man in a room full of people in their 20s. The three-man band opening for Mel and the Tall Boys played covers with originals melting in between, the front man’s look a take on Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane from Almost Famous. With all due respect to Lanier, who were technically skilled and reminded me of when I went to NYU in 1999, I was there for Mel and feeling more awkward by the second as the room got fuller. I pressed my paranoid ass against the glass of the front window, to be just a little farther from the Delta of COVID, while admittedly pulling down my mask for momentary sips of beer. The sound guy walked by and coughed and I felt justified. I have kids on one end and parents/in-laws on the other who I really don’t want to make sick.
That was when Chris Q. Murphy walked in, wearing his sky blue mask to match mine. I was relieved on several levels. Not only was Chris happy to stay masked and create what he called the old man section with me, but he and I go way back with Mel Johnston, whose friend’s sweet sixteen birthday party we once played as The Randy Bandits. When we were about 30.
The upper deck of Rockwood Stage 2 balcony opened and we slipped up there to enjoy both our isolation and the coming show. Mel took the stage with her most vocal collaborator Kyle Lacy, a fluid-fingered guitarist whose chops are only matched by his impeccably coiffed hair. Overjoyed drummer JC Myska and stoic-bassist-who-smiled-occasionally Andy Bell joined them. Mel Johnston can play guitar, but for all but one song she was front lady on the mic. She is, after all, Mel, and they are her Tall Boys.
The first two songs were off their EP, whose release was the reason for this concert. M&TB (who I’m christening as such, perhaps) is a high octane pleasure palace of joy, rooted in the ’90s and 2000s Indie Rock mold, with very intentional echoes of ’60s through ’80s songs of love and celebration.
Mel loosened up by the second song—“So Good to Me”—and the full band dynamic locked in. Mel is always in dialogue with Kyle, musically and otherwise, between songs. He’s like her co-host on a morning show. He has his own Kyle Lacy Band outside of this, but tonight, even when playing one of his songs or exchanging lead vocals as they did in the subsequent Raconteurs cover, he was here for Mel.
And now they’re singing a pumped up rock version of The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream”—also on their new EP. The twenty-somethings are dancing up front, swaying in the middle, and grooving in the back of the standing room downstairs. No comment on if they knew anything about The Everly Brothers. Only trouble is, gee whiz…
Kyle prods Mel to sing the “scary song” from the set list. Scary because it’s all hers and she’s going to play it solo on her acoustic guitar. It’s called “The Breeze.” First of all, it’s a brilliant song and it’s going to be a hit and an often covered classic. Second, Mel is going to get a lot more confident playing the song over and over again across the lands. Tonight, she did some stopping and starting, apologizing. But this only drew the audience in. What could have been one of those awkward turns at the open mic when the singer struggles to execute the song she wrote ended up feeling like a group workshop in creating the song with Mel. “Here’s where I play this lick,” she said, mid-song and pre-lick. When she finished, a tall woman at the table next to us said, “Her voice is heartbreaking. Like Adele.” Mark my words: a hit.
“Deeper with You” was Kyle’s song. Back to rocking with Kyle, Mel, the drummer going nuts, and the bassist a man at work. They’re fun to watch, each of them and collectively, which is why one goes to see live music instead of sitting at home listening to Spotify. I lost count of how many times Mel collapsed on stage—all punctuation between songs, once in a bent-splayed-kneed mirror drop with Kyle, once to briefly impersonate a fetus. Whatever, it was fun.
One of many highlights from the set was the Foxy Johnstons’ song “Roll in the Mud.” Soulful and muddy. Is it a cover song if half the duo that wrote it is singing (Mel Johnston) and the other half (Kim Foxen) is in the audience cheering her on? The Foxy Johnstons were starting to tour pre-COVID and I hope they come back soon. They are the yin to Mel and the Tall Boys’ yang.
Cue Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” Ridiculously ebullient. No irony but also hilarious and, like all the songs, tightly arranged. And now, naturally, a Wings cover, “Let Me Roll It,” followed by another new song “Leave, Leave, Leave” and a wild card song at the end because there ended up being more time in the set than the band expected.
The grand finale couldn’t be more appropriate. Green Day’s “Basket Case.” Because you have to be crazy to be here doing this right now. Everybody’s up and dancing hard and too close. These aren’t raging Republicans denying the reality of the disease. These are post-college kids who had to show their vaccination cards at the door, deciding it’s worth the risk in this moment to bare their faces while another generational torch is passed and a Roman candle bursts forth. They might be American idiots, and I might literally be looking down on them from the old man balcony, but would I have done the same at their age? Probably.
Rocket, thy name is Mel and the Tall Boys. If we all survive this, which some of us will, there’s more of them to come.
Jim Knable is a performing songwriter who recorded two albums in 2020: Blue Reunion, by Jim Knable and The Randy Bandits, and Songs of Suffrage for Luna Stage and the Andrew Goodman Foundation. Mel Johnston was kind enough to vastly improve “Ladies of New Jersey” and “We Waited So Long” from that album by singing with Jim. He has released two other studio, one live, and one secret album with The Randy Bandits since 2006 as well as performing as The Jewbadour for the Unorthodox Podcast circa 2015-2018 with a matching album of demos for the show. His first solo album, Miles, was released in 2000. He is a produced and published playwright, currently the Staff Writer for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and has had articles published in The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine, The SDC Journal, and other online and print publications. KNABLE GAZING is a regular column appearing on the Big City Folks blog.