Music Park: The Cairo Gang @ U Street Music Hall – 9/22/15

Cairo Gang
Emmett Kelly of The Cairo Gang

The Cairo Gang takes it name from a group of British intelligence officers sent to Dublin in the 1920s to conduct operations against the IRA. The name evokes a certain romantic exoticism, mystery, intrigue, and danger. An appropriate choice then for a band whose sound calls to mind a certain period in the past – the mid ’60s – with a sometimes moody atmosphere and forceful drive, while maintaining a pop sensibility that lightens the load.

The first act in a lineup that would include Calvin Love and Mikal Cronin, the 4-piece mingled with fans in the small crowd before taking the stage around 8pm. In a set that ran just over 40 minutes, they burned through 11 songs in efficient, workman style that gave the audience as much as we could ask for. Emmett Kelly, clad in black, ran the band from the corner of the stage.

The first song of the night was “Tiny Rebels,” the title track off their 2013 album. From my experience listening to the band, this is the ideal first song for a concert, or a new listener, as it perfectly hits a number of The Cairo Gang sounds: a steady, droning beat, pleasing harmonies, and Kelly’s voice blending into and above the three guitars and drums. The Velvet Underground is a certain influence and that sound could be heard in the steady drone of the guitars and the steadfast rhythm of the drums.

As the band kicked ahead with the second song, they shifted into a faster tempo, driving the beat and pushing harder on those harmonies. The sound filled the room, echoing around the boxy space of the venue and the small but focused crowd. The other band influence, the Byrds, came to the fore more noticeably in this track, with a jangling, rollicking sound.

As the show progressed, this traversing between two musical influences played itself out, with one song sounding like what I thought was going to be a “Sweet Jane” cover and then two songs later, a rhythm guitar sound that could have been the sister to “Turn, Turn, Turn.” This isn’t to call The Cairo Gang derivative though – far from it. They wear their influences boldly but instead of giving themselves over to the sounds of other bands, they fold those influences into their own unique sound. A handful of songs on Tuesday night even shed completely those Byrds and VU influences, pushing forward into solid modern alt-rock territory.


The Cairo Gang performing at The Empty Bottle

Joking with a crowd steeped in news coverage of the Pope’s visit, Kelly proclaimed a cover of “Prince of Darkness” by the Mekons, “In honor of the Pope, cause we love him so much.” He toed the same humor when later, to a crowd that was attentive if not lively, Kelly sardonically joked that the crowd seemed psyched.

Being the first of three acts at a smaller venue for a midweek show is never going to be easy. Many bands might make the excuse to not give it their all for just that reason, but not The Cairo Gang. Even with a few moments of speaking to the crowd, they played just over 40 minutes, moved quickly through 11 songs, and gave the audience a solid range of their sometimes moody but always catchy sound.

Those who stuck around for Mikal Cronin’s set were treated to Kelly joining the touring band on guitar and backing vocals for the entirety of the set. Kelly acted the secret weapon for the band with his guitar playing and voice that added a nice measure of depth on harmonies with Cronin. His presence brought the night full circle and was an added reward for everyone that showed up early to hear The Cairo Gang.

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