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The New Deal: From Riches to Rags

The Kelley Deal 6000 Middle East Upstairs Saturday, October 4

When the four members of The Kelley Deal 6000 ascended the stage wearing mounted snare drums, the gesture heralded a set that would be anything but predictable. Deal stepped up to the mic, said a quick hello to the anxious crowd and tapped her snare drum four times to count off "Total War." In unison, the band chanted the monotone lyrics and pounded a martial drum cadence. To the surprise of many in the audience who attended the show because of Deal's Breeders legacy, the song consisted only of drums and vocals. The opening, however, evidenced the bold direction in which Kelley Deal has steered her post-Breeders career.

A charged crowd packed the quaint upstairs room, reacting electrically to Kelley's onstage antics, and their energy obviously fueled the band's momentum. Among the many surprises during the set was the announcement that drummer Jed Luhmann was away at a wedding in Minnesota as the best man. Roadie Jessie Ross filled in as an adequate substitute. The time held together well enough, with help from bass player Marty Nedich, though it was apparent during the drum-heavy opener, "Future Boy," that Ross' more appropriate role with the band was as roadie. Despite his lack of chops, Ross supported The Kelley Deal 6000 with groove-heavy intensity that never let up.

Having a substitute drummer didn't at all detract from the performance the band gave: guitarist Todd Mund evoked a sonic spectrum ranging from airy melody lines to bone-crunching chords with his red Les Paul; bassist Nedich aggressively propelled many of the tunes with unrelentingly rhythmic bass lines; and Deal leavened the raw power of her vocals with sensitivity. Her muscular voice never strained, and she displayed impressive range and intonation. At times she could be sweet and velvety. Then she would let loose from the diaphragm and sing a chorus with no mercy. Such was the case with "Brillo Hunt." The song began coy and reserved, but the chorus exploded into crashing cymbals and distorted guitars as Deal's forceful voice ranged over surprisingly complex musical terrain.

Mund's dissonant chording introduced "Future Boy," a short and volatile tune that showcased Deal's ability to convey the aggression that became a Breeder's hallmark. In keeping with the evening's quirkiness, Mund brought out a Fisher-Price xylophone for "Stripper," an irreverent waltz sung in an humorously childish voice. The Kelley Deal 6000 slowed the tempo down a bit for "When He Calls Me Kitten." This song lacked the cogency that distinguished the previous tunes. Maybe it was the crowd, maybe the sound, but this dreamy number came off as stilted and melodramatic.

The rest of the set was remarkably solid, even as The Kelley Deal 6000 negotiated some of their songs' more complex passages. The band set aside three chord convention for a more multi-layered style. Although influences of R&B, Black Sabbath and, yes, The Breeders came through, the song writing was strikingly original. However, some of the songs sounded half-finished and left the listener expecting another chorus or a bridge.

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Because of time constraints, The Kelley Deal 6000 could not play an encore. Between cigarettes and sips of Mountain Dew, Deal chatted with the crowd, appreciating their enthusiasm. The abrupt ending was a little anticlimactic, but at 1:30 the crowd walked out of the smoky room invigorated by the performance.

The Kelley Deal 6000 formed three years ago and recorded their first album in 1995 on Nice Records, a label founded by Kelley Deal. Deal is quick to emphasize that the band is not her solo act, and that all the members are equally important. She does the majority of the song writing, but describes the effort as "mostly collaborative"--she readily accepts input from Mund on guitar parts and welcomes the suggestions of other band members. The Kelley Deal 6000 is the first outfit for which Deal has written songs, and she considers herself a newcomer to the art. She characterizes her move into song writing as "a natural progression from playing Hank Williams and Elvis Costello covers with Kim." One can hear the slight gesture to country on a tune like "When He Calls Me Kitten," which on the CD features a plaintive slide guitar.

Their latest effort, Boom! Boom! Boom!, is a catchy smorgasbord of styles. The album definitely has its roots in rock, revealing influences as diverse as Black Sabbath and the Cowboy Junkies. Although original and often complex, the songs always remain accessible and gracefully simple. As expected, the live show gave many songs an urgency they don't have on the CD. However, the cuts on the album showcased Deal's song writing talent more than the show: studio technology enables Deal to sing her own harmonies, and Todd Mund effectively uses studio guitar tricks to create a colorful portrait of sound. Deal's songs often have the character of a musical sketch rather than the typical plot of verse-chorus-verse, and studio effects enhance her ability to create the haunting atmosphere that she does on tracks like "Box." A swirling guitar echoes distantly in the background while the bass and another guitar play a repeated two chord motif. The drums play a simple beat with a closed hi-hat and Deal's voice is laced with reverb.

Since the Kelley Deal 6000 formed three years ago, it has undergone many incarnations, but Deal and Mund, who met in rehab, have been the core members. They started playing as a duo, but formed a band when the touring Red Red Meat summoned Kelley Deal as an opening act. Deal is frank about her time in rehab, but doesn't go into detail about why she ended up there. Though she started writing songs after she left rehab, she insists that song writing isn't therapeutic for her and that she's not using song writing to excavate a painful past. "I hate singer/songwriters, I hate James Taylor," she declares. "I didn't want to go into treatment to have something to express." She claims she doesn't have the technique to play other people's songs, but can only play what she writes.

It isn't obvious that Deal has fought a battle with addiction. She looks healthy; her eyes sparkle with a fiery emerald green. She seemed easily distracted by the activity around her as the band was tearing down, as if she wanted to involve herself in two things at once. A self-described "people person," she was cheerful and extroverted throughout the interview (perhaps it was the Mountain Dew and the menthols) despite the tremendous outpouring of energy her set required and an exhausting tour schedule. Deal needs eight hours of sleep to keep her voice in shape and related humorously that it went out at home in Dayton because her mother woke her up early for mother-daughter bonding.

"Touring is fun," Deal insists. In her life, "Music is all-consuming."

Devotion to the band and her music is impressive enough. But The Kelley Deal 6000 tours without the plush accouterments of a big-name rock band. After The Breeders and rehab, Deal effectively restarted her career. She had the Deal legacy to build on, but decided anyway to start her own label in an effort to define herself as Kelley Deal, apart from her identity as an ex-Breeder. Ross is the only roadie. As a nascent label, Nice Records can't afford a palatial tour bus. They drive around the country in a comfortable RV that was parked around the block from the Middle East. The Kelley Deal 6000 planned on lodging there for the night. In transit, they usually park at a truck stop. Kelley affectionately calls it a "mobile living room."

What do they do as they traverse our nation's interstates? "Drink Mountain Dew and smoke."

Deal mentioned that she's knits to pass the long hours in the RV. She taught herself this craft while in Europe, and apparently, she is quite skilled: the black dress she was wearing is a product of her handiwork. She also keeps a cat and is a playfully self-conscious about taking up the habits of, in her words, "a weird old lady." Deal is well aware of the contrast between this placidly domestic activity and the intensity of the rock and roll she plays so many nights of the year.

Deal doesn't seem to be taking her career one day at a time. She wouldn't answer any questions about the band's future plans. When The Kelley Deal 6000 isn't touring, Nice Records occupies much of her energy. She seemed content enough in the present. Besides, as she put it, "The reason I don't have a real job is so I don't have to answer any of those questions."

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