Sat March 23
Sun March 24
It's been about three years since Chicago's U.S. Maple played on the West Coast, and their live show is notorious. Because I've never seen them, I asked a friend what it was like. Here is his response:
"The band acts in a very frightening manner. They are creepy, especially [singer] Al Johnson. He looks like Scott Bakula on crank! I thought they were on severe drugs, and, uhhh they act like they're frightened of their own instruments God, I don't know did you mention Captain Beefheart?"
U.S. Maple turned my articulate, intelligent friend into a yammering bonehead. But what would you expect from a band that plays rock so loose and tight at the same time, like they're threading together scraps of seven different songs, while a Quantum Leap lookalike sings like he's whimpering in his sleep and/or choking on a chicken bone? On paper, they're a monstrosity of a band, really. But, like most monstrosities, they're intriguing as fuck--extremely talented, twitchy rock that never goes where you think it will, but brimming with familiarity and great, if disjointed, melodies.
"We've been accused of being deconstructionists many times," says Todd Rittman, the band's guitarist. (Mark Shippy also plays guitar, and Adam Vida drums.) "However, I think if you peel away some of the layers of what we're doing, there is a solid song there, that nothing has been deconstructed. There's a solid composition, and that is very much something that we strive to achieve. Anybody can just break something down, smash it into bits, but that's really not what we're doing."
So what are they doing?
Rittman explains, "We're trying to stretch the limits of what we can do and still be a rock band, to use the basic elements of a standard form--rock and roll--and maintain those without giving you something you've seen already. A lot of people find it disturbing, because it's all these cliché gestures, but given to you in the wrong order at the wrong time or aimed the wrong way. It kind of hits people over the back of the head. Some people like that, some people really don't."
Whether you like it or not, you have to admit that some sort of brilliance resides within their ability to compose music so rocking, yet so about to fall apart. U.S. Maple is capable of challenging and making people uncomfortable merely through their music; in my opinion, there's no better genius. And they do it all without pedals or computers. As Rittman says, "All the effects I need are at the ends of my hands."
But back to the live show. "Creepy," if accurate, is not a very vivid description of what they do onstage. According to Rittman, however, what really occurs involves simple human interplay.
"When we're onstage," he begins, "there's a battle between each of the four individuals in the band, and then there's also the band versus the audience, or at least, an interplay between the audience and the band. That's when we're on fire and we control time and space."
Oh, is that how being on stage makes you feel?
"No! That's actually what happens; we control time and space. Each of the four members of the band has the ability to shut down the song in the middle of it. Oftentimes, that's exactly what happens. When Mark Shippy decides to let a note go on way too long, it's really disturbing. And suddenly, your preconception of what happens in a rock song is put on its head, and yeah, it can get really tense. Oftentimes, there's a complete fucking breakdown on stage, and we have to rescue the song. It's an exciting moment, and it's reality. It's exciting. I like anything that makes me think, you know?"