A Night in the Life

Don Trubey songs

photos by Charles Silver

by Dan Brogan
Indiana Daily Student  •  September 11, 1981

Two women dressed in combinations of fatigues and black are the only figures on the dance floor. The rest of the sizable audience— a good mixture of New Wavers and Joe Colleges— remain seated, passively watching The Dancing Cigarettes. There's a strange tension in the air. Onstage, guitarist Michael Gitlin tries to prod a response from the crowd. "C'mon folks. There's a lot more action coming. Plenty of action. This is only the first set," he says. "Here's one to dance to. It's even in 4/4 time. That's one, two, three, four." A few more dance, but by the end of the next song, even the two original dancers have returned to their table.

After the set, Gitlin and keyboardist Timothy Noe step out into the damp alley next to the Bluebird for some fresh air. Gitlin says, "I think a lot of people came here tonight who don't know us or know what to expect. They hear the term New Wave, and they come here expecting Elvis Costello. But that's not us. They may have to adopt a new frame of reference to enjoy us."

Despite the mood of the audience, Noe says the evening is going well. "We get this kind of reaction a lot," he says, wiping hair and sweat out of his face with both hands. "Our music isn't exactly what you'd expect when you come to listen to a band in a bar."

Instrumental experimentation is a big part of what Gitlin calls "avant-pop." That translates into a strange blending of pop with the group's fascination with conflicting sounds. Which can be distressing to the casual audience. "There are a lot of dissonant notes in our music. Most people aren't used to that. They've come to expect very consonant music," Noe explains. "There's a conflict."

Gitlin laughs and says, "Yeah, a lot of people come up to us and say,'Hey, tune up.' We do."

"Twice before each set," adds Emily Bonus, who has just wandered out into the alley. "It's not that we're trying to be weird. It's just the way we hear things. We don't have conventional music training, and so if we feel something, we just write it that way. We don't throw in any weird notes because 'Hey, that sounds weird.' "

But to a new listener, it does sound weird. The band realizes this, but Gitlin adds that watching an audience catch on to the "new frame of reference" is one of his bigger kicks. "Yeah, it's different," he says. "But if you say you're into new music, why not try the whole thing?"

People continue to wander in and out of the alley, occasionally stopping to talk to the band members. Noe talks about the Cigarettes' following in Bloomington, saying that the band feels a certain freedom when a crowd is already familiar with their work. This summer, when the band went on the road, however, they didn't have that luxury. While at times, the entire tour seemed to be a repeat of the tension of this night, Noe says the band was well received in most cities, but especially in Omaha and Washington D.C.

"Yeah, Omaha," says Bonus. "I don't know why, but we packed 'em in, in Omaha."

Back inside the Bluebird, the final set is a mixed bag. A good portion of the crowd— maybe half— has left. But those that remain, except for a table full of guys in fraternity T-shirts yelling for "Free Bird," are enjoying the music.

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