If all you had to go on was the stage patter from last night’s glorious show by The Vaselines at D.C.’s Rock & Roll Hotel, it would be easy to understand why the Scottish band is known as much for their absence as their presence, for their breaking up 25 years ago the week their debut album was released, for their not recording another album for 20 years, even as their having been championed by Kurt Cobain as his favorite pair of songwriters made them the stuff of legend. Long since broken up as lovers, too, though lately reformed as the Western world’s greatest purveyors of melodic punk rock, endearingly sweet Frances McKee and the faux supercilious Eugene Kelly still quibble and quarrel and goad each other on the stage, ah, but the music, the music was sublime.
Drawing from all three of their albums, The Vaselines live consist of the core members surrounded by apple-cheeked young folk, including Michael McGauphrin, a kick-ass punk rock drummer, Scott Paterson, the most tasteful lead guitarist since John McGeoch, and in Graeme Smillie, a thumpingly powerful bassist. From the early work, it was fun hearing two of the songs Nirvana recorded, “Molly’s Lips” and “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” as well as the song that announced them to us as a force to be reckoned with: “Sex Sux (Amen.)” Their triumphant return album, 2010’s Sex With An X was well represented, with “Ruined” and “The Devil Inside Me” a reminder of how thrilling it was, just a few years ago, to find out that The Vaselines were real, not a rock’n’roll snipe hunt one pursued without being certain the band actually existed.
It is V For Vaselines, which took the # 3 slot on The 2014 Tulip Frenzy Top Ten List (c), that provided the most fun — and the most hope that this present incarnation of The Vaselines lives on for as many years as they were absent. Live, “Earth Is Speeding” was a reminder that as simple as their songwriting is, The Vaselines have the texture of a band like Roxy Music in its antic prime. “Crazy Lady,” which thankfully was restarted after it got off on a false note, is the Platonic ideal of a Mekons classic. The three-guitar structure, punctuated by a propulsive rhythm section, shows that while Eugene may hate the ’80s, it was the front end of that decade, and the preceding fours years of British punk, that gave The Vaselines their wall-of-sound power.
“Bubble gum meets Velvet Underground” is the way they once described the band. They’re a wee bit more complex today than that. Let’s hope The Vaselines slide through a great American tour, that their stage antics are shtick, and Eugene and Frances can keep it going for years to come.