TRIP WIRE at Art Boutiki, by Patric Carver

Trip Wire (photo: Patric Carver)

Walking into Art Boutiki in San Jose was like stepping into a time machine. The front room, a comic book store, had this mid-’90s feel that I couldn’t shake. Was it the fact that there was more print in the room than screens? That irony took second-place to well-executed puns in the merchandise dotting the shelves? That hoodies still seemed to be the preferred fashion accessory?

Then, I spotted it — a customer walked by clutching a copy of Evan Dorkin’s Milk and Cheese: Dairy Products Gone Bad. I don’t know what was on your school binder circa 1992, but mine was coated with (possibly bootlegged) Milk and Cheese stickers. I first saw Milk and Cheese in Greed magazine. With their first issue published the same year that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast hit the screens, the anthropomorphized refrigerator section escapees were SLG Publishing’s answer to a cartoon world that was starting to take itself just a little too seriously.

I was surprised to see the dairy duo staring back at me here. Hardly anyone in my middle school has heard of them two decades ago, and as far as I was concerned they only existed in the faint memorizes of select sonically alternative youths. I figured Milk and Cheese and their publisher, SLG, had gone the way of Daria around the same time the notion of romantic teenage vampire good guys was allowed to become a thing.

It turns out that SLG is still alive and kicking in San Jose. Owners of the impressive Art Boutiki gallery and self-dubbed “geekeasy” performance space, SLG seems as dedicated to representing the strange and the sublime as ever. I have to say, my initial thought upon walking into a comic book store-fronted venue was not “Man, I bet the sound is going to be amazing.” You know what, though? It was. Guess that just goes to show you can’t judge a comic book store by its cover. The back room is intimate without being stifling, and the sound was ample without being overpowering. Perfect place to see a show.

It was also the perfect place for this particular show. Both acts that I was able to catch have a wonderfully nostalgic feel about them that isn’t anchored in any particular time period. They evoke whatever part of your youth that was most endearing to you. The night’s music proved to be the antithesis to modern-day, social-media-induced anxiety and depression — a security blanket of something familiar but not stale, the excitement of comfort.

The first band, David Brookings and the Average Lookings, is impossibly endearing. Playing for the first time with new bassist Dan Erlewine (nephew to the guitar icon of the same name), they sounded like they’d been made to play together. ‘Cohesive’ isn’t the word, because that implies that there was a coming together of separate parts. Brookings and band sound like one entity.

Sometimes the songs are silly, such as “I’m in Love with Your Wife,” a tribute to the Eric Clapton and George Harrison wife swap in which Clapton got Harrison’s wife and Harrison got Clapton’s melancholy-entrenched simplicity. Sometimes the songs are driving and heavy, such as their powerful, “Big Gun.” Sometimes the songs are just beautiful such as the lyrically lovely “Hearts.” Whatever bend the music is taking, there’s just this undercurrent of goodness. Bright and brilliant, these Average Lookings have fantastic songcraft. The first time someone explained all the hidden complexities to me in a Frank Lloyd Wright design, my mind was blown by how intriguing the hidden treasures could be in a house that, from the outside, seemed wonderfully simple and good. Brookings and company’s work has the same quality. Like a TARDIS covered in honey-smooth harmonies, the David Brookings and the Average Lookings experience is much bigger on the inside.

Similarly, the stage was overcome once again when the second act, Trip Wire, graced the stage. One of their founding members, Marty Schneider, was able to chat with me for a few minutes. In a world filled with misogynists in “nice guy” clothing, I can tell you that Marty is an actual nice guy. He spoke about the local music scene with the lust and enthusiasm that I wish I heard from more musicians. “I try to do the old-fashioned thing,” he said, “I start things up, I go to shows, I support other bands. We’ve got to support each other.” There wasn’t a whisper of self-promotion in his voice as he named local bands he enjoys seeing: the Bye Bye Blackbirds, Droneyard, the American Professionals, and the Bobbleheads among them. Only when prompted did he mention that Trip Wire just released their third album, Cold Gas Giants.

He and Bill Hunt started Trip Wire about four years ago, though Schneider’s been playing music in the Bay Area for three decades. That experience really came through on stage at Art Boutiki.

On stage, Schneider is a very disarming figure. With an almost Bob Mould slump to his back, he seems to cradle his guitar more than hold it. Like Mould, though, this inward stance is a mask for outward power. Schneider, along with Hunt, provide a nourishing guitar sound — satisfying sonically. Harmonies were strong and smooth — reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub.

Like most musicians who are worth listening to in the power-pop genre, their sound is hard to describe. It’s real and earnest, without being too grimy. If the Replacements had been formed by decent human beings instead of youthful degenerates, I can imagine the product would have been similar to Trip Wire. Where the Replacements have razor-sharp edge, punk-rock strife, old beer bottles filled with cigarette butts, Trip Wire has pocket-knife resourcefulness, middle-age strife, and actual musical knowledge. The crossover is that Trip Wire, like the Replacements, make you feel better about life. Not by singing about a better life you’re not living, but by setting to music the life we’re all living together in a way that is as infectious as it is endearing.

As I packed up my things to leave at the tail end of one of Trip Wire’s songs, I was struck by an observation. When the bands played, everyone was listening. People weren’t off in the corner chatting, no one was glaring into their phone, the line for the bar was vacant. I was sad I had to leave this place, this moment. It’s rare to have a night where the music really is the focus — for persons on stage and off. It’s the type of evening I always hope for when I go out.

Trip Wire has two upcoming East Bay shows: the Fireside Lounge in Alameda on March 3, and the Starry Plough in Berkeley on March 24.

David Brookings and the Average Lookings will be performing at the SoFa Street Fair in San Jose April 22.

Photos by Patric Carver and SarahJayn Kemp