The Windmill, Brixton, London
19 September 2012
'Chuck thinks that if something doesn't sound right you should stomp on a distortion pedal and make it ten times louder,' explains Wussy's Lisa Walker.
'Sometimes it works...' is the response from her partner in crime, Chuck Cleaver.
And he's right. The pair blend gorgeous melodies and great lyrics with a fine propensity for squalling noise. This, for me, is what rock & roll is supposed to be all about: a passionate racket veined with vision and beauty.
I'd turned up at Brixton's Windmill expecting the full five piece line-up of the band but found that only the two singer-songwriters had made the trip from Cincinnati. But that was never going to be a cue for some sort of laidback, acoustic performance...
In fact, it was an advantage in this intimate venue. The sound guys seemed to be having trouble getting the vocals loud enough over the bass and drums of openers Slowgun and then American Werewolf Academy - in the latter's set, even a harmonica blasting into frontman Aaron Thedford's vocal mic was barely audible. I would have hated for Wussy's wondrous words and harmonies to have gone the same way. But I needn't have worried: they come through loud and clear.
The two of them are here promoting a European-only compilation, Buckeye, drawn from four or five releases across the Atlantic over the last seven years, and there is something of a greatest hits feel to their set, with a whole clutch of songs jammed into their hour or so, any one of which would be a career highlight for most other songwriters: 'Airborne', 'Crooked', 'Maglite', 'Grand Champion Steer', 'Pulverized'... Classic songs just keep on coming.
There's a fascinating chemistry between the duo. Walker is keen to emphasise that they're no longer a couple offstage. 'But there's no real hate,' adds Cleaver, prompting the response: 'I'm not so sure...'
Lisa spends the set alternately grimacing at unexpected musical interventions and beaming at some of the many points when the big man undoubtedly pulls it off. The prickly intimacy in the way their voices and guitars entwine is something special and testifies to deep familiarity with each other's approach. 'We formed the band about 10 years ago,' says Walker. 'I was just an embryo; Chuck was already 50.
This isn't supposed to be slick music and when Lisa apologises for something that was rougher than she'd have liked, a guy in the audience shouts 'Remember Neil Young: ragged glory'. That's not a bad analogy: Wussy have a similar inclination to just go for it in performance and see what comes out; and a similar ability to veer between muscle and bruised vulnerability. As well as songs that stand up in that sort of exalted company.
I'm taken again tonight by the subtlety and beauty of many of those songs, alongside the energy and drive. 'Motorcycle' in particular gets its hooks in my brain, drawing on both the physical (small town, humdrum life) and the spiritual (flashes of the Rapture) to build the power of its yearning for escape:
16 motorcycles just today.
And if they offered I would take it:
A free ride out of this place.
And I would sit right on the back
Without a helmet on,
One day you'll see.
There's something very special going on here: do catch the tour if you can, and give the records a try.
Meanwhile, they're clearly thrilled to be in London and relishing some local experiences, though the double decker buses are not entirely suited to Chuck's ample frame... 'and they smell funny,' he added in a disappointed tone. 'They only smell funny,' came the immediate rejoinder, 'because of your bag of curry'.
A non-couple, but joined at the hip.