For Squirrels turned in a haunting, visceral set
Friday night at Emo's. The band's 1995 debut album, Example, an inspired
if somewhat generic collection of songs that revealed the band members
to be hopeless fans of R.E.M. and Nirvana, failed to prepare attendees
for the spontaneous drama that exploded from the mouth and guitar of Travis
Tooke. Tooke took over singing duties after an auto accident last
September took the lives of original singer Jack Vigliatura and bassist
Bill White. He and drummer Jack Griego hired a new bassist and kept going
as a trio under the For
As this writer walked into Emo's, the band was ensconced in the uptempo "Under Smithville." It was immediately apparent that Tooke was more than a serviceable singer and that the band, like many, were much better live than in the studio. Tooke, though, looked conspicuously like Kurt Cobain (who the band eulogized in the semi-hit, "Mighty K.C."): dirty blond locks, messy eyeliner, big-collared jacket, Fender Mustang guitar. After "Smithville," the band launched into one of many new scorchers, "Madness Is Genius By Design," which Tooke introduced by saying, "This is how I feel all the time." The shambolic bombast of the song proved to be a clue to how the rest of the set would proceed.
The well-received "Mighty K.C." was a welcome breather from the new, hostile songs. The song, which offers an optimistic take on Cobain's death with its chorus, "By the grace of God go I, into the great unknown. Things are going to change in our favor," proved to be a morbidly ironic choice of single. A video for the song, which garnered some MTV airplay last winter, also served as a eulogy for Vigliatura and White. Old concert footage was spliced with images of a Cobain look-alike.
Tooke was more than aware of the optimism of the song and the failings of reality. His sullen demeanor was the result of any number of things: his friends' deaths, being in "that band where the singer and bassist died in a car accident," making a "re-debut" under heavy industry scrutiny, voyeuristic members of the Emo's audience who came to eavesdrop on others' misery, clueless members of the same audience who did not even know that this was the second incarnation of the band. As the last chords of "Mighty K.C." faded, Tooke twice screamed, "I WANT YOU BACK!"
Tooke's between-song banter was alternately bitterly sarcastic and self-consciously impenetrable and distant. He introduced "Mighty K.C." by saying, "This song goes out to you and to them." Approaching the end of the set, he announced, "We have three songs left. Songs left are three." Before the last song, he told the crowd the staff was turning off the PA but assured the crowd they would continue to play. (The PA was not turned off.)
The last song, another new one, shot forth with a whirlwind fury. The bassist fell down in his enthusiasm. Tooke fought with his guitar, playing so fiercely the strap came off. He finished the song without the strap, manhandling the guitar, ripping chords and notes from it with ferocious intensity. Attempts to smash a pipe on Emo's ceiling with it proved fruitless, although he was successful in angering the Emo's stage staff. At song's end, Tooke hurled his guitar into the crowd and stormed out of the club.
Tooke's grief was palpable and moving. His apparently intentional Cobain-isms were haunting. Rather than coming off like a poseur, he seemed like a person doing his best to scream at the void left by his friends; if that catharsis required him to "become" the Mighty K.C., than so be it. Given the acute musical vehemence of the trio and its obvious reservoir of raw emotion, things will surely continue to change for the better for For Squirrels.