In the loose and grungy ’90s, pockets of great music bubbled up, and few places were as cool as Boston, where noise pop quartet Helium formed.
Former Helium frontwoman Mary Timony, who had relocated from DC to Boston at the time, recently championed the remaster of the band’s only two albums, along with another album of rarities, and made an effort to get the band back together for a brief tour. Although that reunion did not occur, Mary took the show on the road herself, playing an opening date to a sold-out room at Rock and Roll Hotel on Tuesday, June 6, to the delight of a much enthralled audience.
Although Helium published its last album 20 years ago, their output carries a very earnest sound, combining Mary’s pleasing voice to hazy psych-rock guitars, and the songs very much come to life in performance. Last Tuesday, Mary fronted a three-piece band composed of Merge labelmates Hospitality — Amber Papini (guitar), Brian Betancourt (bass), and Nathan Michel (percussion). (Merge also supports Mary’s current band, power pop trio Ex Hex.)
Mary and company opened the show with “Pat’s Trick,” surely Helium’s best-known song, from first full-length album The Dirt of Luck, reissued along with The Magic City by original publisher Matador Records. It’s a song of remembrance, nominally comparing the growth of a relationship to that of a flower. In her concert, Mary gave the song a gentle, respectful treatment, ensnaring the audience immediately in the buoyant noise of her guitar.
If you somehow don’t yet know of Mary, you should know that guitar virtuosity took her into a solo career after Helium and into a collaboration called Wild Flag with members of Sleater-Kinney. Ex Hex, her latest project, represents a refinement of her formidable guitar chops into straightforward punk-flavored ditties. But to be reminded of Mary’s full range behind the guitar was a joy — the depths and turns of the Helium songs, given to fuzzy riffs and breathy incantations, represent a strong level of songcraft.
Mary played with comfort and ease. She maintained perhaps a bit more poise than in shows with Ex Hex, where she’s not afraid to unwind and rock out with her bandmates. In contrast, the Helium catalog provided Mary with an opportunity for meditation, presenting the slow strummer “XXX” from original EP Pirate Prude (now reissued on rarities compilation Ends with And); racing through the strings of “Leon’s Space Song,” a catchy jammer from 1997’s The Magic City; and burning up the guitar with the extraordinarily catchy melody of “Vibrations” from the same album.
After closing with “Baby’s Going Underground,” Mary and her bandmates returned to stage for a three-song encore that ended with The Magic City’s “Walk Away,” a wholly appropriate sentiment for a final song in a strong set that honesty deserved revisiting. Throughout the show, Mary and the folks from Hospitality demonstrated good chemistry, easing smart insights into how to best bring the Helium songs back to life.
Mary Timony is still on tour tonight, June 12, in Toronto — and she continues to perform her songs by Helium June 13 in Cleveland, June 14 in Detroit, and June 15 in Chicago. Catch this show — a rare treat indeed and an appropriate salute to some great music that should not be forgotten.
And Ex Hex has a local one-off showdate opening for Spoon at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday, July 30 — that’s also definitely worth your time (buy your tickets here)! Mary Timony is hands-down DC’s best guitarist, and her versatility, on display during the Helium shows, goes a long way to highlight that fact.
Here are some pictures of Mary Timony and her band performing Helium at Rock and Roll Hotel on Tuesday, June 6, 2017.