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Songs You Know by Liver

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Happy go-luckys: Barbara Manning and her band smile upon the faithful at the Ottobar.

By Ian Nagoski | Posted 8/15/2001

Barbara Manning and the Go-Luckys!, Big Lazy, The Lockhorns

Barbara Manning and the Go-Luckys!, Big Lazy, The Lockhorns


A good bar-show bill is more than just multiple sets of hot stuff. At its best, it's a trip through a gamut-spanning but integrated emotional landscape of heartwarming hills and bilious vales. Just such a swell visit to several of your favorite vital organs was had a couple of Thursday nights ago at the groggy old Ottobar, where the PA filters out one out of every five words and they're sorry that they're out of Yuengling. ("But have a Budweiser, my friend," the bartender offers. "It's perfect.")

Just as well, 'cause when I think of Barbara Manning, headliner for the night in question, I think bourbon. Nothing goes with the sticky emotional gray areas of Manning's songs (and the memories of ex-girlfriends that, for me, invariably accompany them) like a gray, sticky floor, a room full of late-20s/early-30s weirdos, and the pungent smell of booze and its accompanying uneasiness. While Manning's indie-songwriter contemporaries and juniors (Stephen Merritt, Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices) don shades to play outdoor summer festivals or tighten their sets for bigger theaters, she still creates punky, melodic pearls for drunken swine in grody rock clubs, violets growing in the hops-and-barley compost. And she continues to write some of the most poignant songs you're likely to hear over a $3 bottle (or outside of a Richard Thompson concert, for that matter). Manning's songs take myriad forms, from the slow, dreamlike incantations of "I Insist" to the Ramones-thrash-on-a- therapy-couch "Don't Neglect Yourself," but each plumbs sensitively cloudy bits of the psyche and relationships without falling into cloying, narcissistic singer/songwriter gobbledygook.

I was into the distilled beverages by the time the local country-fried husband-and-wife duo the Lockhorns hit the stage. They opened with a breakup song before moving through a funny and, at times, touching set of songs of defeat, disappointment, ambivalence, and low-level anxiety--a perfect blend of big-dumb-grin and wish-I-was-invisible. Personal favorite: "They're Playing Our Dirge."

The second band was late arriving, so Manning and German twins Fabrizio and Flavio Steinbach (aka backing band the Go-Luckys!) set up quickly and tore into the bittersweet old Robert Scott favorite "Smoking Her Wings." Drummer Flavio and guitarist Fabrizio were perfect, tasteful, and on; Manning's voice sounded girlish and charming. The first half of the set mixed up a few oldies--including "Scissors" from Manning's first solo album, released more than a decade ago, and "The Arsonist Story" from her 1997 Matador solo effort 1212--with songs from her latest, You Should Know By Now. The guitarist switched to bass, and a sax player came on for a few songs. Lots of smiles on stage all around as Manning and the boys had fun gliding through her world-weary rockers and ballads. The second half included 1212's "Isn't Lonely Lovely," but otherwise it was mostly new stuff, which was fine, 'cause the new stuff sounded honey-sweet and head-nod-worthy.

When Big Lazy finally arrived after midnight, the dozen or so folks who'd stuck around got some swell slinky, emotionally ambiguous instrumentals--midtempo Twin Peaks fake-jazz, quasi-surf shimmy, and tight rockabilly hustle. Great stuff for a school night, and a low-impact parting shot for freshly tenderized heart and liver alike.

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More from Ian Nagoski

Notes From Home (4/1/2009)
A short tour of non-English-language music for sale in Baltimore

LEAF: The Twisty Story of a Baltimore Record (2/27/2008)

Life of the Party (8/21/2002)

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