Live Review: The Vaselines, San Francisco, CA, May 11, 2009

vaselines410It must have been a shock for patrons entering the cavernous (700 capacity) Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco’s North Beach to find the place nearly packed. How could so many people possibly remember obscure Glasgow band the Vaselines, who broke up in 1990 after releasing one album and a couple of EPs? Surely, there can’t be that many Kurt Cobain devotees still around who recall (or care) that Nirvana took them out on tour, cut a pair of their songs (“Molly’s Lips” and “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”)—and that Cobain named his daughter Frances Bean after one of the Vaselines’ vocalists, Frances McKee.

The Scottish outfit’s other singer, Eugene Kelly, looked somewhat baffled when he and McKee strode onstage, backed by guitar, bass and drums. “In the old days there were only about 10 people and nine of them were throwing things,” Kelly smirked. The club PA had just blared out something from the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP when the reformed Vaselines launched into “Son Of A Gun,” a perfect recreation of their somewhat twee, boy/girl vocal tandem with Velvet Underground-style buzzsaw guitar. It sounded as though they had never left. Anyone even slightly versed in Scottish rock history would have no trouble slotting the slim volume of grainy, indie-rock snapshots by the Vaselines into the big picture created by the Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Belle And Sebastian, the Delgados and Franz Ferdinand. Stephen Pastel produced the second Vaselines EP, and McKee and Kelly have played a few reunion shows with members of Belle And Sebastian.

“You’re probably wondering why it’s been so long since our album came out,” said an earnest McKee, giggling nervously. “Well, we’re finally getting around to touring for the album.”

“Actually, Frances has spent a lot of time in jail, writing depressing songs,” joked Kelly.

The new material, sprinkled in among their early stuff, is moodier, slower and quieter. After taking flak from McKee for his ever-present guitar-tuning problems, Kelly responded with, “Yeah, I’m the straight man, and you’re the funny girl.” Kelly drew a slight gasp from the unwary when he announced, “This song’s about the Lord God, Jesus Christ,” then paused a full 10 seconds before adding, “and how I don’t believe in him.” If there were any lingering doubts, “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” and “Teenage Superstar” answered all questions about the Vaselines’ lapsed state of conventional spiritual awareness.

“You’ve made an old couple very happy,” said Kelly at the conclusion of the one-hour show, the band’s first-ever in San Francisco. “We’re just like Donnie & Marie,” he said, pointing a thumb at McKee. “She’s a little bit country, and I’m a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.” Rather than the pre-fab Mormon duo, it was more like the return of the barb- and wisecrack-filled glory days of Sonny & Cher, with enough mutual roasting to feed San Francisco’s homeless population for at least a week. The solid set of rock ‘n’ roll was pure dessert.

—Jud Cost

“Son Of A Gun” (download):