Everything thing is fine and good with Local H. They proved that Saturday night to a nice crowd at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall when they hosted a pajama party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their 1998 album Pack up the Cats.
Their last visit to the Twin Cities left fans wanting more after only playing an abbreviated set as the opening act for the Toadies. Saturday’s show promised to deliver much more as they would play a regular set plus a special album set which would mean close to 30 songs and three hours of Local H. We made sure to dine pre-concert right at the Amsterdam. Their unique offerings of finger food are just the thing before entering the main hall behind the dividers. We targeted a spot near Twin Cities-native, Ryan Harding’s punk kit which was prominently placed stage-right and tight to the front edge of the raised platform. Everywhere you looked was adorned in a variety of cat ornaments including a cat skeleton.
Dressed in normal street clothes and sporting a shorter haircut, Scott Lucas entered with Ryan Harding and they kicked off the show right at 8:30. The duo instantly reminded us of how much sound two guys can generate with Lucas’ customized guitar (with a separate bass output) allowing him to cover both guitar and bass while Harding’s pounding drums add the essential rhythm. It was “The Misanthrope,” that earned first-line duties. It was the only song played all evening from their most recent album, 2015’s Hey, Killer. The album is what sparked my re-interest in Local H and I urge you listen to the rest of this highly-acclaimed disc as soon as you have a chance.
Local H has been mixing up the songs played in this first-set on this tour with a mixture of hits and deeper tracks from the band’s 28-years of making music. The third number, catchy “California Songs,” was the first song of the night to generate some crowd participation. Even for those practicing “Minnesota nice” it’s tough to resist a chance to yell “F— New York too.” After “Buffalo Trace” the pair was joined on stage by two fellow Chicago musicians, keyboardist Dave Lugo and guitarist Jay Langston, to add depth to “Hands on the Bible.” When they continued as a four piece for “(Baby Wants To) Tame Me” it really revved up the crowd for the first time all night. After six straight out of the chute, Harding’s arms finally got a break as Lucas paused to tell the audience, “It’s good to be back in the Twin Cities. This time in St. Paul.” Asking for more crowd energy he continue, ” It’s Saturday night, let’s have a good time!”
Resuming as a duo, they presented their new single “Innocents” before launching into two fan favorites from As Good As Dead to finish the first half strongly. First, Fritz’s Corner identified the die-hards like the shaved-head, former Ground Zero bouncer (who said he saw Local H there 20 years ago). These were the 40-year-olds aptly shouting out, “It gives me away” along with all of the verses. Then no better song to cap the first stanza than High-Fiving MF which always gets the crowd going. After that rowdy flurry everyone knew a break was inevitable.
The second set would be the playing of Pack up the Cats in-order, in its entirety. After doing a similar thing in 2015 for the 25th anniversary of As Good as Dead, Lucas wanted to also honor an album he admits to like a bit more. Feline-themed intermission music including Meow Mix commercials, Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussy Cat”, and Bob Seger’s “Katmandu” reminded fans what was upcoming. Bodies drew tighter to the stage as the pace and the volume of the spooky “meows” reached their crescendo and then it was time for the Pack up the Cats pajama party. Yes, pajama party. Not sure why (or why I no longer wear those comfy night-garments) but the band returned in a variety of PJ’s. Lucas had the solid black white-edged long-sleeve model, while Harding and Lugo went plaid. Langston fashioned the long-underwear style shark-print we might have all worn as kids. We have a clear winner.
Pack up the Cats is Lucas’ version of a rock-opera. The album tells a story and its songs are meant to be played in order. While it does have an underlying cat theme, the real storyline is that of an up-and-coming musician’s rise and fall. There are 15 songs on the album, but like all musicals, some of these are short fillers to segue into the next song. All Right (Oh, Yeah) showed immediately that this half would be more intense with fans screaming out the choruses and bouncing along (ok, at least me.) As the 20th anniversary set continued, it was clear why two supporting musicians joined the band for the tour. They were essential to pull off the playing of an album loaded with background sounds requiring slide guitar, keyboards, and even the all-important slide-whistle and triangle.
Soon the band launched into two of my favorites, back-to-back, in “What Can I Tell You?” and “Fine and Good.” It’s the latter that is still stuck in my head (trust me, more enjoyable than “Baby Shark”). Then Lucas gave us the scoop on an unfamiliar song named “ATM.” “It wasn’t good enough to make the final album but we will still bore you with it anyway. I hope everyone figured out by now that we are playing the full Pack up the Cats album and didn’t show up expecting to hear us play Ham Fisted or Nimrod. I don’t know why I said that,” he joked. But the band said probably because he’s a nimrod.
Then it was “Cool Magnet,” the band’s lone entry on CowBellSongs.com (who knew, but surprisingly fascinating to look at such a list). Before starting in, Lucas asked, “Who loves cowbell? Do you like two cowbells?” Sure enough, dual-cowbells helped take “Magnet” to the album’s festive high before the storyline took it’s fateful turn in “All the Kids Are Right.” “Kids” was the top single from the album (and had a quirky video you should watch showing lots of Scott’s and former drummer Joe’s). The song describes how the band lost their fans after playing a show when too drunk. The lyrics go, “You heard that we were great, but now you think we’re lame. Since you saw the show last night.” But Scott halted there and required that tonight the line should go, “Since you saw the show TONIGHT!” The song continues, “But you won’t wear our t-shirts now, not anymore” but that was far from the truth Saturday night as $20 shirts were flying off the rack.
Lucas sat down at the keyboard for the final song of the album, the pleasant ballad “Lucky Time,” and teased, “This is what you came to see. Me play the piano. First there was Liberace, then Elton John, then me,…. then Bruce Hornsby.” With election day on Tuesday, Scott asked if everyone had already voted as they had casted absentee ballots already. He introduced the band including, “their lone undecided voter and hometown hero Ryan Harding.”
Yes, Harding is one of us and started drumming at the age of 18, playing in various bands in the Minneapolis area. At the end of 2013 he replaced Brian St. Clair (who had replaced original drummer Joe Daniels). Observing in close proximity to Harding’s aggressive drumming is plenty of entertainment alone. I don’t know how much he makes, but they cannot be paying him enough to hammer those three toms as often and as hard as he does. We felt his thundering beat through-and-through and admired his physical sacrifice evidenced by his sweat-soaked pajamas. But he must love being showcased out front as a meaningful piece of a high-energy rock duo rather than being a smaller part of a traditional band. Maybe its the perks like free bus rides and three-hour workouts every night?
The band retired for a short breather before kicking off their three-song encore with the surprise cover of “Ain’t No Grave (Can Hold This Body Down)” by Johnny Cash. Then of course it was their huge-hit “Bound for the Floor” before Lucas ended the show by navigating his way through the crowd with a long corded-microphone to finish singing “Manifest Density, Part 2.” A rather anti-climactic ending but a clever way to reach the merchandise table where he stayed and graciously signed items after the show.
It’s frustrating that many only know Local H as a one-hit wonder. But true fans would encourage listeners to set aside “Bound to the Floor,” and instead download Pack up the Cats and many of Local H’s other albums and hear what you’ve been missing: dozens of very listenable songs with catchy hooks. That is your assignment.
Hopefully Local H’s next assignment will be to record a new album. Thankfully, Lucas has hinted that it’s about time and that after this third and final stage of the Pack up the Cats tour, following the holidays, they may return to the studio. I have my fingers crossed. But for now I’ll continue to listen to the existing albums I love as I relax in my new PJs. And I soon hope to hear many more around town humming “Fine and Good.”