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It's a sticky Saturday evening on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and the CMJ Rock Hall Music Fest is in full swing. Head Automatica lead singer Daryl Palumbo wanders into the Record Revolution music store, wearing a scruffy tee. He flips through a trove of obscure DVDs and CDs in hushed concentration. Suddenly, his silence is broken. Looking up from his mission, he displays a bemused glee.
"Now that is incredible," he says, holding up a rare Zappa DVD bootleg for the rest of his bandmates to see. "Can you believe they even have this? Classic." He snaps up the title, along with a handful of other Zappa boots. "I collect them," Palumbo says later. "Guess you could say I'm a lifelong appreciator."
The store's manager greets Palumbo and his bandmates, and invites them to partake in the long-standing tradition of autographing Record Revolution's walls. The soft-spoken, diminutive (and fairly tatted-up) frontman accepts the offer. He locks and loads a Sharpie, signs in the back by the jazz section, and then takes his stack to the register.
With Whodini's "The Freaks Come Out at Night" thumping from store speakers, I introduce myself, thus crossing into Gap-salesman territory and forgetting the Audiophile Golden Rule: Always leave us alone to shop. Bad move. Yet Palumbo smiles cordially and extends a hand before glancing back at the racks of discs. "I've got a little more shopping to do," he says in a hushed tone. "Let me catch up with you later, okay?"
The irony of Whodini's synthesized mantra emerges later that night. Down the street at the Grog Shop, where Head Automatica is performing, Palumbo's 100-megaton rock-star persona explodes onstage. The band kicks things off with a double-down of "Graduation Day" and "Laughing at You," and our frontman's quiet side yields to some dirty, sexed-up, schoolboy alter ego.
By the time Head Automatica is charging through "Lying Through Your Teeth" the third song on its current effort, Popaganda Palumbo is a lightning rod, belting out lines with exaggerated, "My Generation"-like stutters.
Sweat flies off Palumbo, who is now in a saturated button-down. He delivers lines with raw sexual swagger and sassy gut-check sucker punches. Yer lyin' through yer t-t-t-teeeeth . . . yer not at all, not at all whatcha seem.
As good as Head is, it's hard not to gawk stupidly at Palumbo. The guy onstage is beyond possessed.
Can this really be the same shopper from the record store? And if so, is it any wonder that so many fans of his heavier, more hardcore project, Glassjaw, have come along for this very clean and precise pop-rock joyride?
As for Palumbo, the moon is out, and our peacefully blissed-out CD hunter has become a rock-and-roll werewolf roused and totally in command. The freaks come out at niiiiight, indeed.
The plan for Head has been in Palumbo's head for a long time. Born of electronica, computer-sequencing, and hip-hop production experiments, Head's sound is now very much informed by mod-rock's past. Palumbo insists that "no one in America wants to say they're in a pop band," but he doesn't have such reservations. "A lot of people here have a problem with melody."
Pop was hardly the direction of Decadence, the group's 2004 debut album. Produced by Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (Gorillaz, Cornershop), Decadence was a deft mélange of styles, with a flair for the dance party and even space-age über-disco. The results were uneven, but tours with the Used, Interpol, and the Rapture were anything but, set off by Palumbo's incendiary stage presence.
A couple years later, Palumbo and the band's name are all that remains of that maiden voyage. Some fans maintain that the new Head Automatica is a different band and should be called something else. The Automator is out of the picture too, but if there's a reason for Nakamura's lack of involvement, Palumbo won't elaborate. "We just don't work together anymore," he says flatly.
It hardly matters. Popaganda is far more consistent than Decadence. "We're not abandoning that sound," Palumbo says.
"I wanted to make something less cerebral. And I promise that [our sound] will always change. It's no revolution. Scenes and people change. It has to be that way. I refuse to be stagnant and lose that creative drive."
Packing up for the after-show party, keyboardist Jessie Nelson is excited by how things went. "It's good to know that it came off well [tonight]. We've done quite a few shows since the record came out, and we're really pleased with it." He's glad to be in the clubs again, referring to one-offs, like this show, in the middle of tours (Avenged Sevenfold/Coheed & Cambria, and other upcoming summer shed offerings).
"We had planned on doing the whole [Popaganda] tonight, but after we did like eight tunes in a row, we shifted to some older stuff," interjects bassist Jarvis Morgan Holden. "I guess we didn't want to bore people."
As if on cue, Palumbo rounds the corner, darting past a few straggling fans. Apparently, the singer's inner werewolf is in full recoil: Claws retreating, fur receding, fangs retracting, Palumbo eyes the staircase. "Are you hot?" he asks Nelson. "It was so hot in here tonight. I thought I might throw up onstage."
Minutes later, a newly calm, cool, and collected Palumbo mingles at the party with fans and local rock dignitaries as a special "guest" DJ. None of the Zappa makes his playlist, but that's okay. The charismatic frontman's already on to something else, wide-eyed fans in tow.