George Washington University's Smith Center is an awful place to hear any musicians who rely heavily on lyrics. No matter how clear the words are when they leave the stage, they are reduced to gibberish by the time they have rattled around in the high-ceiling ducts and bounced off the concrete walls. New York's 10,000 Maniacs are a great rock-and-roll band, but crucial to that greatness are lead singer Natalie Merchant's lyrics, so the band was at a decided disadvantage Wednesday night.
One inadvertent benefit of the situation was that it forced attention onto the often overlooked musicians. The band has improved dramatically since it formed nine years ago, and Wednesday drummer Jerry Augustyniak pushed it into sounding tougher and surer than ever. The evening's real musical star, though, was guitarist Robert Buck, who injected every song with the kind of fiery but disciplined fills and short solos one associates with Robbie Robertson.
The Maniacs have just reissued their first two indie releases on Elektra Records, and Merchant said, "That's why we're doing this tour, so we can play all these old songs." The band even invited founding guitarist John Lombardo, who left in 1985, back onstage to play songs he helped record. His chugging rhythm freed Buck to play the bell-chime riff on "Daktari" and the slide guitar solo on "Can't Ignore the Train."
In the opening set, Lombardo introduced his new trio. Incredibly, he has a female singer named Mary Ramsey who not only sounds uncannily like Merchant but also dresses and looks just like her. Ramsey played droning, John Cale-like lines on a viola and sang in familiar folk-rock reveries, while Lombardo and bassist Butch Amiot kept the beat. This trio showed far more potential than accomplishment, but when Buck and Augustyniak joined them, it seemed plausible that Lombardo may help launch a second important career.