We Love Music: Fern Knight/The Plums @ Comet Ping Pong, 2/5/11

Courtesy of Fern Knight.

The back room is filling up at Comet Ping Pong in anticipation of two intriguing bands set to showcase their sound and songs. Ping Pong tables are being pushed aside to make way for the crowd as the rather confused method of having people go back and pay a cover charge takes place. Martin Bisi and band [correction: The Plums]* set up and go through the laborious sound check as everyone eagerly awaits the music. And this is a fine bill with the talented New York based producer/engineer Bisi leading a band that sound a bit like some of the bands he has worked with such as Sonic Youth and Swans followed by Fern Knight, an always interesting DC/Philadelphia band with wonderful psyche and folk elements in their songs.

It is a few minutes after eleven pm. I have been hanging out on this small commercial block on Connecticut for an hour and a half. Not being one to hang around bars, especially in crowded Saturday night bars like this, I perused the Politics & Prose bookstore until it closed at ten pm. Then, it is off to the club to watch ping pong and hoping some music would get going. And this is why I have avoided Comet Ping Pong shows in the past. I don’t mind staying up late, but I do mind starting my evening this late. If I don’t get out the house early enough, it is just too easy to stay home. And if I was off to the theater, I would be more in the mood to go home and not continue the artistic theme in a different venue. But this bill interested me, so here I am and finally the music begins.

Martin Bisi [correction: The Plums] went from sound check to some quiet adjustments to stage volume and feedback into their music in a manner where it was difficult to say where the song began. But it quickly went from a John Cage/Terry Riley sound through a quirky lof-fi Pere Ubu sound into full fledged psychedelic jamming that ultimately reminded me of local favorites, Kohoutek. When it really moved, there was some nice motortik style drumming and a rhythmic throb of guitars reminiscent of Hawkwind. There were three guitars going along with bass and drums, so it was loud and strong with some nice wailing guitar work. They were keeping it instrumental until the end when they added some rather meaningless barely audible vocals for a few seconds. Transitions were a bit awkward, but I could live with that as they did not waste any time retuning and chatting. They added some keyboards late in the set which was more of a rhythmic sound, as opposed to any real dexterous playing. And ultimately that is what it was all about – laying down a sound with power and conviction. I thought they were successful, but I have seen it done better with Kohoutek, Mogwai and the like. I would still say this was a nice 35 minute blast of sound.

Fern Knight eventually hit the stage with the biggest lineup I have seen from the band. Margaret Ayre is the mainstay with her lovely singing and cello playing. Also in the lineup are drums, bass, guitar, violin, and flute. And that combination of sounds is perfect for psychedelic folk music, which is pretty much what Fern Knight provided tonight. They had a nice drone quality and the band used dynamics well from lighter sounds to heavier psyche-rock moments. It was a bit of a Faun Fables meets Spirogyra (with more of a Mandy Morton vocal style rather than Barbara Gaskin). I also detected some of the folkier Amon Duul II at times which sounded great. They added some harp toward set’s end, so the ethereal, mystical sounds were only enhanced. On the downside, the sound was not always balanced very well with some instruments lost at times. I did like the guitarist’s wah-wah sounds coming from deep in the mix rather than powering things up front. It was a lovely effect. But then it ended. The 25 minute set was over and the night was done.

Although the music was solid and enjoyable, tonight, I have to say that I probably will not be headed back to this venue to often, which is a shame since they book some really good bands. But the late start, casual style, and really short sets do not make me anxious to come back. Keep in mind, I am very lazy and can walk to all the U Street area clubs, so it is very easy for me to pass up events at an even moderately inconvenient club like this. But I am sure I will give Comet another chance when they do produce another really exciting band. The bands tonight did deliver some fine music, even though as Fern Knight’s Margaret Ayre pointed out, “it is past my bedtime.”

* Editor’s Note: Thanks to Patrick who pointed out that Martin Bisi and band performed even later in the night after many people had left. David and company had in fact seen The Plums open the show.

Born in 1959 in the same hospital as Bob Dylan, David survived the progressive excesses of the early 70s to embrace the fledgling Dayton Ohio punk scene in the late 70s. After managing Toxic Reasons, working on shows with DOA and Husker Du, publishing zines, and hosting a radio show, he moved into a more lucrative career (while collecting a massive record collection in the mean time). Retired from real work, he has resumed his music work with his blog DC ROCK LIVE. He also reviews CDs for the European magazine Folkworld.

8 thoughts on “We Love Music: Fern Knight/The Plums @ Comet Ping Pong, 2/5/11

  1. Martin Bisi headlined. What you were describing were the Plums (www.myspace.com/plumsband).

    The lineup that was taped to the cashier table was only in order of appearance.

    Martin Bisi played after the majority of the room cleared out post-Fern Knight. It was a fun, short set.

  2. Ah, so that explained why they looked so unfamiliar (only from website views, as I have not seen Bisri). Well, I am sorry I missed him. And thanks for the correction. This has happened to me before more than once (but I caught it by the end of the shows). And thanks for mentioning that other people left. Apparently I wasn’t either the only person who: a) thought the show was over; or b) was a little worn out at that hour of the morning. I have seen headliners lose audiences at other clubs and I hope the Comet Ping Pong wants to run things a bit more band and audience friendly. This venue does not work for me based on what I saw this past Saturday.

  3. I’ve been to Comet Ping Pong a handful of times over the past couple years, and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who wishes they would get their act together. It does the performers, let alone the club, no good to lose audiences before the show is over. I live a whole lot closer to Comet than to U Street, and it would be great if it were a viable entertainment venue. But U Street is where I spend my money to see music, because the shows start more or less on time and I get home a whole lot earlier. In one extreme case, a 10:30 show (I think) started 30-45 minutes late because there was a bar mitzvah party going on in the performance space. Add to all that the fact that there is no raised stage, and I have trouble dragging myself there even for a free show.

  4. Chris,
    Luckily, they have added a slightly raised stage (16″?) and the sound has definitely improved since the first show I saw there 2-3 years ago.

    While I do think it’s pretty ridiculous that the music starts so late, I can understand why. It makes sense to have the music start after the dinner rush, in order to keep customers coming. That is their primary operation after all.

  5. Thanks for the comments. And Chris, I too am glad I am not alone as I really try to check my “grumpy old man” mindset at the door, as I find much I can complain about (and sometimes do) at any club. And Patrick, that is a valid point about dinner service. There are structural and business issues to deal with here, as there are at many clubs. Although you do hit on a key point with “primary operation”, and that can be a problem. If the music is secondary, then it will be hard to continue with full audiences. When I arrived some time before 10pm, the woman at the Door said tables were full, maybe I could crowd around the already crowded bar and wait. When I asked if I could wait in the back, she said it would not be very comfortable. So I opted to go back to the bookstore, then buy a diet coke and walk around in the cold evening air for another fifteen minutes. Reviewing past shows, I have wanted to complain about DJ sets at the Velvet Lounge and Rock’n’Roll Hotel from down or up stairs bleeding into the live sets, but have held my blogging tongue, as I realize these clubs need those crowds to stay in business (especially if six people are watching a folk guitarist at the Velvet Lounge for instance). This is certainly an area I hope to explore more.

  6. I’m glad to hear they now have a raised stage – they did not have one on January 7, when I was last there, to see the Paul Collins Beat (great set anyway). One thing they did well that night was to use the same drum kit and amps for all 4 bands (courtesy of, I believe, the Hall Monitors), which kept down-time between sets to a minimum.