The news of college rock’s death has been slightly exaggerated.
Like birds and butterflies, small touring bands make their annual migration across multiple landscapes, stopping for moments, but most often remaining in purposeful, but restless, motion. They return to their home towns—sometimes losing members along the route—to nest, rehearse, and repeat the process. Perhaps this is the Darwinian imperative of caravanning to the Golden Fleece: constant touring on an impossible budget leaves only the most resilient members and ensembles ready for the next evolutionary step. Survivors must drive 500 miles on little sleep, navigate a lopsided city, load into a club to check sound levels, wait, play for 45 minutes, wait, and load with hopes of earning some extra cash from band merchandise. Maybe they move to the next league, but are more likely to be caught in a migratory loop.
Then there those of us who witness their short sets. At Strummer’s (named after Joe Strummer) in Fresno, dozens enthusiastically soaked in local beers and the traveling bands Campdogzz and Summer Cannibals on January 30th. Despite its inconvenient floor design, Strummer’s fit the bands’ contrasting personas well: dark, transgressive, yet safe and filled with potential. Chicago’s Campdogzz began the night with a few naked notes from their song “Souvenir” that could have initially been misread as a sound check, but in time unfolded into a well-constructed enmeshment of sounds anchored by Jess Price’s distinctive—but familiar—vocals. Price’s comparisons come fast: PJ Harvey and Patti Smith meet Gillian Welch and Whiskeytown. The two guitarists behind her blend college-rock picking with a droning slide reminiscent of David Gilmore’s work on Pink Floyd’s 1971 album, Meddle.
Campdogzz’s set deviated very little from the opening song forward. Setting mood over melody, the band generated pillows of sound and a narrow offering of tempo and single-song distinctiveness. Their passivity was both charming and displeasing. Campdogzz’s songs don’t end, they run out of momentum: rolling, slowing, then ceasing to move. They occupy a stage, but fall short of doing so in a way that makes one feel that they have yet earned the right. But touring begets seasoning, and their path up the evolutionary ladder will depend on crafting memorable melodies to match their angulating moodiness, and cultivating a unifying identity that demonstrates purpose.
Portland veterans Summer Cannibals displayed a greater sense of self than Campdogzz. That self, however, is almost entirely the privilege of guitarist/vocalist Jessica Boudreaux. This is clearly her band. Still, the pieces fit. The question is whether those pieces will stay intact. Boudreaux’s songs are short, smart, and hook-conscious. But their true power resides in the delivery. Sporting the authentic instruments of generations of Pacific Northwest club-rock bands, Summer Cannibals meld J. Mascis-like guitar solos to Mudhoney-infused power chords. They also retain much of the ironic self-amusement found in their home region’s best former (and current) bands. Boudreaux communicates with the audience through witty banter and rock star performance. At one point, she even straddled a floor monitor in a way that could only as described Iron Maidenesque. Summer Cannibals is, without a doubt, a fine, fine, club band. But where do they go from here, and is there still an audience sharp enough to appreciate their efforts in an age of growing musical illiteracy and sonic complacency? Only Darwin knows.
Dan Cady is an associate professor of history at Fresno State. Some people know him as Dr. Sugarman.