Saturday night’s show at Silver Spring’s Rodeo Restaurant could be described as just another pickup gig for some veteran local musicians. But the triple bill of the Howling Mad, Ottley, and the Spectacles is also a survey course in Washington rock, punk, and power-pop history.
The evening’s performers include former members of Grin, one of D.C.’s leading early-’70s bands; Razz, a major local draw from 1974 to 1981; and the first incarnation of the Slickee Boys, which began playing in 1976. Ironically, the lineup omits the act that originally booked the date, Johnny Bombay & the Reactions, which Indian-born guitarist Abaad Behram started in 1978 after leaving Razz.
Just after Behram arranged the comeback gig for the dormant Reactions, he and former Razz frontman Michael Reidy finally located a bassist for the quartet they’d been developing for several years. So Behram put the Reactions’ return on hold, and substituted the live debut of the Howling Mad.
“This band is just Reidy and I deciding that we could maybe write songs in the present moment,” says the 52-year-old Behram. “We’re not relying on the stuff we’ve done before.”
Where Razz was rooted in R&B and Britishinvasion rock, the Howling Mad offers “a lot riskier material,” Behram says. “I’m playing more sonically. Razz was much more chordal. This stuff is not as structured and a little slipperier.”
Reidy, who won’t state his age, agrees with Behram about the new group’s music—although he curses himself for the new material’s difficulty and jokes about getting a teleprompter so he won’t have to remember the lyrics. “These songs are pretty wordy, with a clear-cut message for the kids,” Reidy says. “Like, never get involved in a land war in Southeast Asia.”
To complete the bill, Behram recruited Ottley, the recently formed trio of singer Martha Hull, guitarist Marshall Keith—both former Slickees—and Hull’s husband, drummer Bob Berberich, who played in the Hangmen, Grin, and the Rosslyn Mountain Boys. (Opening are the Spectacles, whose J.P. McDermott and Washington Post columnist John Kelly previously power-popped together in the early-’80s threesome the Item.)
Besides their newness—this will be Ottley’s second show—the two bands also share lean instrumentation. Razz featured a twin-guitar sound, but the Howling Mad has just one guitar, plus bass and drums (played by Greg Schoenborn and Razz veteran Doug Tull). In Ottley, only Berberich’s drums and Keith’s baritone guitar support Hull’s voice.
“Ottley is a lot like the Slickee Boys in the early days, only stripped down and tightened up,” says the 52-year-old Hull. “We make a lot of noise for only three people.”
Berberich, 58, allows that drumming without a bassist seemed odd at first, but “when Marshall and I are locked in, everything is really happening together. The bass and the guitar are one and the same, so it creates a really strong groove.”
While the Howling Mad currently have just eight songs, all originals, Ottley boasts a larger repertoire, thanks to some former Slickees standards. Among those is “What a Boy Can’t Do,” which an adolescent Berberich first played (as “What a Girl Can’t Do”) in the mid-’60s with D.C.’s Hangmen, the garage-rock band that originated the tune.
Hull and Berberich joke about putting a few Ottley songs on MySpace, along with photos of the band members in their high-school days. “We’re not actually trying to fool anybody,” says the drummer, but “the music sounds like we’re teenagers.” —Mark Jenkins