Spineless Swine is a local cover band of The Smiths. They sound great and you should go listen to them sometime. I’ll get back to them in a bit, but first bear with me while I digress.
A mere 10 years ago, I only had in my collection the singles compilation from The Smiths. I hadn’t given them a lot of thought but I liked some of the more easily digestible songs like “Panic,” which protested the state of pop music — a sentiment everyone can embrace completely from time to time. “Panic” also had the easy pleasure that came from lifting a guitar riff from “Metal Guru” by T. Rex, and I always have been a fan of the early 70’s glam musicians like Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and Roxy Music.
It turns out that Steven Patrick Morrissey also had been a fan but he explicitly rejected the direction the musical progeny of those bands took when they went electronic and started crafting sophisticated synth arias. Rejecting music by bands such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in substance and presentation, The Smiths then embarked on a short-lived rock journey that some (including me) say begat britpop.
Never particularly intended to be embraced by fans of new wave like myself, The Smiths subsequently largely passed me by until a lovely English-Belgian girl with bright eyes and long legs suggested I should own more of them after picking through my music collection. Always a little bit too eager to please the finer sex, I promptly bought everything I could find by The Smiths and quickly understood how they remain one of the most misunderstood bands of all time.
Take, for example, a popular little number called “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” It is not, as most people on the dance floor today seem to believe, a pleasant little ditty about how Moz is so in love with being out on the town with a certain special lady. It is instead a tale of rejection concerning a certain special lady who doesn’t want to be with the Mozzer, so he is left to romanticize their violent deaths in a traffic accident as the ideal ending to his unrequited love.
Sure, it’s over the top and ridiculous but it’s surely not sappy and romantic. It’s dark, dark stuff and only the people who truly get it (99% of whom are actually English) can laugh at it.
This brings me back to Spineless Swine, a quintet that do in fact seem to get it. It would be difficult at best to stage convincing covers of The Smiths and not really fathom their songs. And it may be that few truly want to understand The Smiths — despite the DC area offering at least three cover bands and at least one massive annual party at the Black Cat that pits them against The Cure — which could explain the criminally under-attended show by Spineless Swine when they took to the Red Palace last Thursday.
Vocalist Brian Smith sounds great, effortlessly capturing the range and inflection of Morrissey, and even so despite having a cold or hoarse voice that night. Smith totally nailed the wailing self-aggrandizement of Morrissey as he complains about being ignored, unloved, disrespected and outcast.
Morrissey himself has built a modern-day career in part by revisiting many of these same songs in stripped down performances in concert. I say stripped down mostly because it is hard to match the virtuoso sound of Johnny Marr’s guitar in any live setting unless you are Johnny Marr, who I reluctantly concede to be the world’s greatest living guitarist.
Spineless Swine brilliantly addresses this problem by blending two guitarists, Craig Gildner and Jeff Booth, who together make a heroic attempt to actually sound like Marr — and they do a damn fine job. Rounding out the band are drummer Tim Felton and bassist Johnny May, who from a triumphant and tireless rhythm section worthy of the music.
It’s a little unfair for me to say but if I were to have a criticism of Spineless Swine, who brilliantly take their name from a lyric in “The Headmaster Ritual,” it would be their flat stage mechanics. By contrast, the recently reformed Girlfriend in a Coma, another local cover band performing The Smiths, provide another layer of entertainment as their vocalist Christopher Quinn throws himself into impersonating Morrissey’s stage moves. (Note: Unbeknownst to me, Quinn apparently fronted this band for a time as well?)
I certainly don’t expect every cover band to put themselves into their act in the same way, and perhaps the crowded stage at The Red Palace restricted any possibility of the five-piece band “owning the space.” Perhaps one exception occurred when mod maven Andria Leo took the stage for a pleasant performance of “Jeane.” Does she do her best Sandie Shaw for “Hand in Glove” as well?
Still, the next time you are wondering why you smile at people who would much rather spit in your eye, pull up a few pints and commiserate with Spineless Swine the next time they play highlights like “Still Ill,” “This Charming Man,” and “William It Was Really Nothing.”