Review: Merchandise crash the Hub for defiantly wild Tampa album release party
Soaked in PBR and perspiration, Carson Cox surveyed the rowdy crowd at a jam-packed Hub Friday in downtown Tampa.
“There’s a lot of sweat, a lot of beer, a lot of love, a lot of hate,” he slurred. “I feel how I look right now.”
Those words, like so many Carson Cox soundbites, can be taken so many different ways. He’s the singer for Merchandise, a DIY punk-turned-indie New Wave band that in some corners of the world is considered Tampa's hippest musical export in years. Their new album After the End was released this week on vaunted British label 4AD, and they’ve been tracked and profiled by publications ranging from Pitchfork to Spin, NME to Interview, Billboard to Vice.
And yet swaths of the Tampa music scene could take Cox or leave him, thanks to a string of interviews with out-of-town press that suggest he has little to no regard for his homeland. The most recent and prominent example: A lengthy interview with London-based Dazed magazine in which Cox called Tampa “super corny,” “a cultural wasteland” and “a place where they just don’t want anything intelligent.”
Bitchers and moaners Merchandise may be, at least when it comes to the press, but so be it: Rock ‘n’ roll history is littered with the like. Those who give zero f---s how Tampa comes across to the readers of Dazed magazine only truly care about the music and the moment, and those were the souls who packed the Hub on Friday.
Backed by backlit bottles of whiskey, gin and vodka, Cox seemed completely in his element, whether moshing to openers Bloodwave, spewing beer into the crowd or whipping his drenched blond bangs from his face. Opener Enemy – the video to which was filmed in part on that very same block, inside the Tampa Theatre – immediately riled up a cadre of crowdsurfers, slam dancers and can-tossers, a sight hilariously incongruent with the band’s dreamy, upbeat New Wave tunes.
But the crowd was only taking its cues from Cox, a magnetic and boundary-free live performer, banging bodies with friends and fans and blowing kisses to the back of the room as he surfed across their hands. “I feel like a f---ing monster right now,” he slurred at one point; “I need you to dance with me,” at another. Near the end, it looked like he might be torn limb from limb.
Vocally, Cox was kind of a hot mess – fine in places, wildly out of sync in others – so if he’s worried about continued comparisons to Morrissey (“I f---ing hate Morrissey,” he told Billboard), maybe those'll soon become a thing of the past.
Erratic though it was, Cox’s fearless – and by the end of the set, shirtless – performance was necessary, because unless you were sidestage or standing on a chair, the rest of Merchandise was all but blocked from view. Fans and Cox smashed into gear at various intervals, causing mild disruptions here and there – Dave Vassolotti’s guitar got briefly knocked out of commission on Little Killer. It’ll be a real question how long the band can (or wants to) perform like this. At one point, with fans crashing dangerously close to the band and the Hub’s gear, he chuckled, “There goes all my money.”
Regardless of what Cox may say about Tampa in the press, Merchandise has shown love to the local institutions they revere – the Tampa Theatre, the Castle, Mojo Books and Music, the American Legion and, yes, the Hub, which features prominently in that much-debated Dazed piece, and which Cox on Friday called “the best bar in Tampa Bay.”
Here’s another Cox pullquote for you, from Vice: “I ponder on commercial fate every once in a while but I’m never afraid because I live in the cheapest place in the world. I could make art until the day I die.”
And another, from Interview: “I wrote a lot while sitting in the backyard. The backyard is all tropical vegetation. There’s lizards everywhere. Those kind of things pushed me to write this record.”
Merchandise don’t have to come out all huggy and kissy for Tampa – they acknowledge this city shaped them, still shapes them, and enables them to live the outsider life they so love. They may yet remain outsiders in their local music scene, but as long as the Hub'll still have them, it'll always feel kinda like home.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*