Medicine Circus look, as Gary Busey said in Silver Bullet, nervous “like a virgin on prom night.” Tonight the band releases their fourth CD, Bottle Rockets of Emotion (MedicineCircus.com), at Todd’s Bar & Grill. It’s set to be a good time and moment of truth; they fret over looking and sounding pretty, and whether the night will culminate in some sort of magical manner.
It’s strange that a 4-year-old, fourth-album band (whose singer-guitarist Christopher Stearman boasts another seven years’ experience with local once-greats Wish and Ramona Sway) would be nervous. Then again, for unsigned local bands, each new album marks elapsed and running time on the music-career clock. They hope, with increasing intensity, that this new record will break big when, often, it doesn’t. Still, where a lot of bands would’ve given up two albums ago, Medicine Circus endure.
As openers Last Response tear down, Medicine Circus don their game face. Stearman looks every bit the captain as he tapes set lists (indicating not only song order but also points at which to retune and address the audience), to the stage. He and his bandmates—drummer Brian Dove, guitarist Ben Moffat, bassist Christian Wadsworth—ensure amp rigs go up, effects pedals are linked, instruments are tuned, mics are check-checked. Then the band promptly disappears out the back door.
They’re gone for 10 minutes, long enough to wonder just what they’re up to. Few other local bands duck out after setting up—they just plug in and go. Not Medicine Circus: they’re working for the arena band handbook, cultivating anticipation. They return having changed into stage clothes—nothing major, no sequined coats and assless chaps, just added hats (or bandanas) and swapped shirts. However minor, they seem to help Medicine Circus get into its stage head, the idea being to create the effect of a rock show within an intimate dive bar.
Thus, the show commences with Moffat rapidly strumming a chord and letting it echo, ripple throughout the club. The crowd begins to hoot and whoop, anticipating the rock, which Medicine Circus delivered with opening numbers “Lost in Lux” and “Feelin’ Disco.” The audience cheered both tracks like they were greatest hits, the songs they came to hear. Stearman promised more to come, and leftovers: Free CDs for everyone. The crowd cheered more.
Their fire stoked, Medicine Circus promptly dug into the first track from Bottle Rockets. “Lashes” is every bit like the band’s characteristic ’90s alt-rock/Brit-pop mix (with Zep-y inflections), but decidedly rawer, surging, pulsating, even thrilling. Here, they let up, working through slower material—all inferior to the more rollicking songs, but serving to build tension until more new tracks, like the hard-charging “Americana” and “Nice & Good,” blew the lid right off.
“Nice & Good” actually would have been a good place to end the set. The song concluded in a flourish, with Moffat and Stearman jumping like pistons in a V8, and the crowd delirious. Alas, they played “a few more,” not quite recreating the build-to-burst effect they’d so masterfully achieved just 15 minutes ago—at least to half the Todd’s crowd, which seemed to mentally check out. The hearty ones who stuck with Medicine Circus were rewarded with ostensible fan favorites, to which the audience drank and danced and sang.
Even those of us who had checked out weren’t entirely disappointed for sticking around. We left with our copy of Bottle Rockets of Emotion, easily the band’s most cohesive and realized album to date, and a reason Medicine Circus shouldn’t sweat. When, after four years together, you can still deliver a solid record and a largely hot live show, you can rest assured you should keep pushing, because you’ll still pick people up at the end of the night.