- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Hard-driving local pop rockers Washington Social Club do some short driving into Virginia Saturday night when they play Jammin’ Java in Vienna.

“To be a pop-rock band coming out of D.C. was something of an aberration or an anomaly” in 2001, says bassist Olivia Mancini, laughing. District bands were supposed to be punk and on Fugazi’s Dischord Records — “and we are neither of those things.”

While the Club’s 2004 debut “Catching Looks” makes clear they don’t subscribe to an ascetic “straight edge” punk lifestyle, Dischord’s do- it-yourself ethos does come through in hyperkinetic frontman Martin Royle’s lyrics.

The opener, “On The Inside,” proclaims “I’ve got nothing to do, I’ve got nothing to sell” and that “your friends have good jobs but they’re miserable.” The driving Jam-like pop-punk beat and clipped, insistent, Clash-like vocals are delivered with enough humor that it doesn’t come off as (too) condescending.

“Dancing Song” has a great lo-fi beat, and yes, you can dance to it. Dancing and nighttime beats real life, since “Dad’s real drunk and Mom’s just a mouse.” But the Club’s rock-as-escape motif hits its apex on “Breaking the Dawn,” via the chantable Ramones-y chorus “Goodbye shrink-to-fit, hello magical highway.”

While the tight, exuberant energy of songs like “Modern Trance” and “Are You High?” may remind one of the Jam or Police, Mr. Royle’s real love is Oasis and Britpop. On the new song “Jarvis Cocker” (coming on a new album in the fall) he struts like the Pulp frontman, amidst a neo-disco beat and some amusingly timed hand claps.

Jammin’ Java is quite a venue shift for a group used to playing Velvet Lounge and the Black Cat, and that played the Warped Tour in 2004 — where Miss Mancini was the only female onstage.

She thinks Jammin’ Java works for them: “It’s kids from Northern Virginia whose parents don’t always want to drive them to the Black Cat,” she says. “They’re still excited to be at a rock show.”

That’s especially true since under-18s don’t have many concert options.

“I went to a lot of free Fort Reno shows in high school, which was a really great outlet for kids growing up,” Miss Mancini says.

While the band might throw in a cover of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” there probably won’t be any Pulp songs Saturday night, although Miss Mancini admits those “wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

She also admits the band doesn’t tone down their sound or their onstage antics despite the coffeehouse setting.

“It’s loud, we’re jumping around, we’re having a good time.”

• • •

“We just pay homage to a lot of different artists we’re influenced by,” says Umphrey’s McGee drummer Kris Myers of the band’s sound. The Chicago-based progressive rockers hit the 9:30 Club tonight.

Even minus the “next Phish” hype that’s dogged them the last year or two, it’s a rapid, unlikely rise for a jam band formed by some University of Notre Dame students in 1997.

“Brendan and the other guys were probably the only true hippies in the whole school,” says Mr. Myers, alluding to guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss. Mr. Myers joined the group in 2003, bringing a master’s degree in jazz performance with him. When the guys graduated in 1999, “they were still learning to play their instruments, let alone rock shows.”

Unlike some jam bands rooted in the blues or country, Umphrey’s merges “classical elements to the jazz-rock of fusion…along with progressive rock elements like King Crimson,” says Mr. Myers, who then rattles off other influences like Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, and OutKast.

Their new album, “Safety in Numbers,” dedicated to a friend killed on the way home from a 2004 gig, “is kind of a conversation piece between the guitarists telling each other dark stories about relationships gone awry. It’s definitely not a party album, put it that way,” he says with a laugh.

Actually, the jaunty “Women Wine and Song” is the album’s sole party song. It’s ably assisted by Huey Lewis, whose harmony vocals meld seamlessly into the chorus.

On the opener “Believe The Lie” Mr. Bayliss emotes like an American Sting, while on the acoustic closer “The Weight Around” he opts for a Scott Weiland grunge vocal.

“Every song you’ve heard on the album, we’ll find ways to manipulate it, turn it inside out…and improv on a section or create another song within the song for the live show,” Mr. Myers says.

Noting that the band is playing more rock clubs (“even CBGB’s last week”) and moving away from its original Phish influences, he insists that the group is “not just a jam band.”

“Do we have elements of that in the music? Yes.”

But they still do live jams?

“Twenty minutes is as long as it goes,” he says.

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