For those that were paying attention, a fun bit of punk scene history took place just under the radar upstairs at the legendary Middle East nightclub in Cambridge, MA, a couple of nights ago. The centerpiece of the evening’s festivities was the East Coast debut of Racquet Club, the latest brainchild of Blair Shahan and Sergie Loobkoff, the latter obviously of Samiam fame. Racquet Club became a thing only recently after the reunion shows that Shahan and Loobkoff’s previous band, Knapsack, played a handful of years ago after what had been a decade-and-a-half absence. After the demise of Knapsack, Shahan went on to front The Jealous Sound for a number of years, and recruited that band’s last drummer, Bob Penn, to join him when the new, post-Knapsack project with Loobkoff started. The rhythm section on the new project would be rounded out by Ian Smith, who previously played bass in a band called Mercy Beat with Sam from The Bravery (remember them, kids??). Put ’em all together and what’ve you got? Racquet Club!
The foursome put out their self-titled full-length debut album three weeks ago via Rise Records and headed out on their first headlining tour this week, stopping in Chicago before making their way down the East Coast. Cambridge marked only their third headlining show, though you wouldn’t necessarily know that by watching them. Penn and Smith were a thunderously tight anchor, keeping the low end rocking hard and heavy to drumstick-shattering results. Their dynamic playing provided reliable foundation for Shehan and Loobkoff to build and soar off. Given the songwriting parts involved, there is an element of familiarity to the melodies, though Shahan’s tone is a bit more hopeful than from the Jealous Sound/Knapsack days. Loobkoff’s trademark SG-divebombs are as angular and textured as ever, even if he snapped his high E string halfway through the set and forged ahead as a five-string player for the duration of the set, that included the band’s entire album in reordered fashion. The crowd was a tad thinner than some (read as: me) had hoped, though it was a Monday night for sure. Still, those in attendance were legit fans, many singing along for the duration of the set.
Opening this week-long stretch of the Racquet Sound East Coast trek is four-piece New Jersey band Mercy Union, whom you probably think you’ve not heard of and yet whom you’ve most definitely heard of. I’ll explain. A handful of years ago, Jared Hart, frontman for Bayonne, New Jersey street punk band The Scandals, started performing solo acoustic-style during Scandals downtime. With the help of a few local friends, he put out a full-length solo album, Past Lives and Pass Lines, a couple years ago on Say-10 Records and continued to alternate between solo shows and Scandals shows (as well as a stint in Brian Fallon’s backing band, The Crowes). Hart put together a full backing band for a few shows earlier this year, and used them to record what was slated to be the second Jared Hart solo album but what in actuality turned out to be its own thing, and for good reason. The aforementioned “backing band” includes Nick Jorgensen on bass, Rocky Catanese of Let Me Run (one of the first bands I discovered and subsequently fell in love with through Dying Scene) on guitar/backing vocals, and Benny Horowitz of The Gaslight Anthem on drums. They decided on a name — Mercy Union — only a few days before this run with Racquet Club (they had previously been billed as Jared Hart – Full Band shows), and since Cambridge was the first night of tour, that meant it was also their first show as a unified item.
The band’s set consisted of a mix of reworked songs from Past Lives & Pass Lines interspersed with new tracks from their upcoming full-length debut (more on that in the coming months). Hart’s projects, whether solo or The Scandals, have always been well received in Boston, which has become a bit of an adopted home-away-from-home for him, and that was certainly true on this night as well, if a bit more subdued than in previous shows (Boston…seriously…if you like a set of musicians enough to pay money to go to their shows and sing along and enjoy yourself in the process, what’s with the invisible semi-circular perimeter in front of the stage that people dare not tred in. Particularly upstairs at the Middle East, it’s a phenomenon I’ve never been able to explain. But I digress.) The sound, particularly on the new songs, is very much rock-and-roll (not surprising given their so so Jersey pedigree) but doesn’t quite sound exactly like the sum of the aforementioned parts would. There’s a really cool upbeat groove to a couple of the tracks (I won’t pretend to have written the names down). Even though the band collectively have several decades in the game as touring musicians, there’s a bit of unfamiliarity as they learn to play with each other. That said, the rhythm was pretty tight, Catanese provided noticeably solid harmonies to Hart’s trademark rask, and the added guitar tone provided plenty of depth to Hart’s pre-existing body of work; all clear signs that this was only night one of what should be — and deserves to be — many more to come. And don’t worry Scandals fans; both projects will co-exist!
Check out our full photo gallery below, and stay tuned for more on these pages from Racquet Club and Mercy Union going forward!