Review: Merchandise showcases lush new music, hometown love at Crowbar in Tampa
The unthinkable has happened: Merchandise has grown up.
Two years ago, the Tampa indie rockers dropped their album After the End with a messy, rebellious, chaotic performance at the Hub in downtown Tampa. It’s surprising we got even that. Until they signed with British label 4AD, they were all too happy to operate in the shadows of the Tampa punk scene, playing house parties and storage unit shows and shunning the local spotlight, even as tastemaking sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum came calling.
But on Friday, Merchandise celebrated their second 4AD release, A Corpse Wired For Sound, with a full-on, legitimately professional concert at Crowbar in Ybor City. No one slurred or fell over. They played like they meant it, delivering melodic and occasionally beautiful music to a crowd that appreciated the effort.
Tampa may always have a love-hate relationship with Merchandise — Crowbar was healthily packed but not full — but on this night at least, Merchandise was happy to dance with the city that brung ’em, shouting out their hometown just about every chance they got.
“We’re Merchandise, from Valrico, West Tampa, Plant City and let’s say New Tampa,” singer Carson Cox said on behalf of guitarist David Vassalotti, bassist Patrick Brady and new drummer Leo Suarez, respectively.
And later: “We’re from down the street. Maybe you read about us in the Washington Post, but we actually have been in all these bars before.”
The Tampa crowd, consisting of plenty of fans and music-scene pals — Cox likened it to a “high school reunion” — seemed in no way bitter about Cox’s infamous “cultural wasteland” interview a couple of years ago, and that’s probably as it should be. With a series of gigs across Florida this week, this album roll-out feels like a fresh start with Merchandise in their home state, particularly in Tampa, where they played a free in-store gig at Mojo Books and Records on Tuesday.
I spent chunks of this week trailing and writing about them for this profile — it was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time the whole band had consented to an interview with local media, not that we haven’t all tried — and from everything I saw, they do seem calmer, chiller, more responsible and accessible. When Cox went crowd-surfing midway through Friday’s show, he took care to protect his in-ear monitor, something that probably didn’t happen at that 2014 Hub show.
“Now you understand why we can’t do the show at the Hub,” he said, grinning. “We have too much expensive stuff now.”
And they sound like it. The band played about a dozen songs, including several from the lush and polished A Corpse Wired For Sound, and Cox’s warbling croon was in fine form on new single Lonesome Sound, a song polished and catchy enough to deserve radio airplay (or whatever passes for radio airplay these days).
Throughout the night, Cox would pick up a guitar or synthesizer here and there, or drop it entirely and sing directly to the crowd, his charismatic delivery delighting those leaning on the stage. He grabbed someone’s cell to snap selfies with his bandmates during In Nightmare Room (“I wrote that after I went to the Castle. You guys never been there? It’s right down the street.”), tugged suggestively at his shirt during Winter’s Dream and hugged and kissed musician friends just offstage during Time. But he also displayed something approaching humility and self-deprecation, apologizing for breaking a string and even for needing to tune before True Moon.
The voraciously creative Vassalotti, meanwhile, twisted and contorted while shredding away on every song, wearing a cowboy hat that, can’t deny it, called to mind the Edge circa 1988 (in a good way). Along with Brady and Suarez (both rock-steady on Flower of Sex), they all seem confident in the simple grooves and pleasures of singles both old (Little Killer, Green Lady) and new (Lonesome Sound, Flower of Sex). Don’t be shocked if you see them at some major festivals next year; they sound ready to take the next step in their unpredictable career.
Tampa may never fully embrace Merchandise the way a hometown should. But the group that played Crowbar Friday night wasn’t mysterious or antagonistic or standoffish. They acted like a proper band, one that’s getting better with age and experience. They were open to performing like the professional rock stars they’ve become.
Could Merchandise still become heroes of the Tampa music scene? Let’s not go crazy just yet. But at the very least, it’s no longer unthinkable.
-- Jay Cridlin