Music News

The Talent Shows

It may not have been an evil omen, or even anything so innocuous as a harmonic convergence. But the Figgs, without planning to, predicted their tour trouble in the very first verse of their new record.

The New York-based Figgs open Sucking in> Stereo (Hearbox), their latest guitar-driven garage-pop outing, with "Opening Night," greeting the listener by roaring, "We almost missed our flight! We almost missed our flight!" (Well, not exactly; the Figgs ride the bus, but it scanned better than "We almost missed our bus.") And then the band kicked off its current tour in the first week of March, with two shows in Boston and D.C.; you might have seen the footage of Massachusetts and the greater Northeast digging itself out from under 20 inches of snow that week. A day before the scheduled performance, nobody knew whether the opening show was going to come off at all.

If that particular coincidence comes tinged with a bit of self-deprecating irony, it's probably intentional; "Opening Night" is kind of like the Replacements' "Talent Show" turned inside out. Where the Mats poked ugly fun at (what was by that time) their arena-size stardom by casting themselves in the roles of pilled-up nervous amateurs, the somewhat less widely known Figgs, who don't have anything to lose, come on like arrogant cock-rockers with an anthemic "welcome to the tour" piece. But the hello-Boston histrionics are the joke in their entirety, paying off in the priceless squeal, "we're suckin' on opening night!"

But this time, the Figgs almost didn't get the chance to suck at all. "There were no buses running out of Boston," reports guitarist Mike Gent. "I finally got to take a train, but I didn't get in [to D.C.] until much later than I was supposed to." Even though the show encountered a few bumps, everyone made it on stage on time, and the crowd at D.C.'s Metro was solid.

"D.C. is always the first stop anyway, so that's the one where we're still working out the kinks. There was actually a good number of people there last night, but there was a band coming on after us, so we only played for about 40 minutes. The crowd liked it, but as soon as we were done, the sound guy ran us off, so we couldn't keep playing, even though everybody seemed to want us to. And then this other band came on after us and everybody went home."

So maybe they didn't suck? Anyway, the hell with it; the show came off in the end, which, thankfully, seems to be par for the course. Take the example of their tour supporting Graham Parker, a tour Capitol Records didn't want the Figgs to take, a tour later documented on Graham Parker's two-disc set The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour on Razor & Tie, a tour on which the young, loud Figgs did their dead best to deliver like the Rumour, Parker's most accomplished band.

"I'd met [Parker] in Atlanta in 1996," says Gent, who'd been a fan since he was a kid. "He was doing a matinee show and I went up to talk to him. He'd heard of us because we'd both done some recording at the same studio. And right after that we did a song for the Parker tribute album, and four months later he called and asked us whether we'd want to tour with him."

The Figgs had released a full-length on Capitol, 1996's Banda Macho, after a slew of singles and cassette-only releases and a highly acclaimed album called Lo-Fi at Society High in 1994, all on a hodgepodge of labels. The band was doing yeoman's work, as subsequent releases would demonstrate; NY Press called 1998's Couldn't Get High one of the year's top albums, while the Onion and the Washington Post both gave props to the band's careerlong work and bemoaned its unfathomable lack of popular accolades. But in 1996, trouble was a-brewing at Capitol, and, as Gent remembers it, the label's response to the Parker opportunity constituted a wake-up call.

Though the eventual split seems to have been genuinely free from rancor -- Capitol supported the band for a small time, even after their parting of ways -- it appears obvious that the venerable major label wasn't the most appropriate place for a band like the Figgs. "Our Capitol record had been out for a couple of months, and they wanted us to go on tour opening for Nada Surf. And we told them no, we wanted to go out with Graham Parker. And they said either 'Isn't he dead?' or they were thinking Gram Parsons, or something, right? And it kind of showed us how together they were about where we were coming from. Capitol never knew what to do with us anyway, and they really didn't want us to do the tour. But there was no way I was going to pass that opportunity up. And then we did another [tour] with him in '97, which was when the album came out."

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Eric Waggoner