Long-running Washington trio Trans Am didn't have a Baltimore stop on its current tour--a shame since its new album
is its best in years--forcing us to check the band out on its home turf at the Black Cat earlier this week. We missed the Psychic Paramount, but Zombi, the night's second opener, was so closely in line with Trans Am's own aesthetic that if we didn't know better, we might've assumed it was some kind of side project. A duo of a drummer and a guy switching between bass and keyboard, Zombi teased a snippet of Journey's "Seperate Ways" during its soundcheck, hinting at the gloriously faithful re-creation of synth-driven '80s hard rock that followed. It's pretty easy to imagine that if these two guys had been born a few decades earlier, they might have hooked up with a singer with a weird, high voice--and maybe a guy who wrote pretentiously philosophical lyrics--and then they could've been, well, Rush. But in today's woefully prog-starved musical landscape, Zombi is left to jam in indie-rock clubs on long, meandering instrumentals that sound like the bridges from Rush songs. Which is fine and good, really--but sometimes we want to hear Rush choruses, too. Trans Am's music can also feel like a tour through the band's favorite classic-rock clichés. But the detached, genre-exercise vibe that sometimes afflicts Trans Am's albums is thankfully a nonissue during the band's live show, where the members joyously rock out too much to worry about whether their love for vocoders, cock-rock riffs, and antiquated synthesizer tones comes off as tongue-in-cheek. Ultimately, Trans Am is just a kick-ass band with chops and some novel ideas, no sillier than most of the artists it could be accused of parodying or paying homage. Trans Am's set was dominated with
material from the jump, ramming headlong into the aggressive "Conspiracy of the Gods." And while the band, as always, rarely dipped into its quieter, more drum machine-driven studio material onstage, some of the new album's relaxed grooves, like "First Words," were beefed-up live. Drummer Sebastian Thomson has remarkable control over the airtight polyrhythms on the band's faster, knottier tracks, and he treated the end of every song as a gigantic release of tension as he unloaded a battery of tom fills and cymbal crashes, giving even Trans Am's less bombastic songs big, splashy arena-rock endings. A few chestnuts from older albums like
, and even the band's self-titled 1996 debut followed, but sadly the audience wasn't treated to a prolonged foray into Trans Am's back catalog. Even with an encore, the band was onstage for less than an hour, and we would've liked to hear more from an act with eight albums to draw from. Shit, Rush would've played at least three encores.