The tour is called "The Magnificent Seven vs. the United States," and when it came to the 9:30 club Thursday night it was videotaped for the "Reverb" music show on HBO, which will air the concert next month. The traveling package offered a chance for seven alterna-rockers to take a vacation from their normal careers. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Screaming Trees' Barrett Martin, Luna's Justin Harwood, the Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey and three friends performed in three configurations: a jazz-rock instrumental combo called Tuatara, a chamber-rock group called Mark Eitzel's "West" Band and a satirical rock revue called the Minus 5. As one might expect from the vacation atmosphere, the emphasis was on having fun rather than working hard.
No one benefited from the situation more than Eitzel, the former leader of the American Music Club. Buck had helped Eitzel write the songs for his new solo album, "West," and the results were more melodic and optimistic than anything the moaning, angst-ridden singer-songwriter had done before. The live versions of the songs were even stronger than on record, for the rhythm section of guitarist Buck, drummer Martin and bassist Harwood was elastic enough to adapt to the singer's quirky phrasing yet muscular enough to propel the chorus hooks forward. In his beatnik get-up of a porkpie hat and goatee, Eitzel was at his best on an infectious new love song co-written with Buck, "Hold Me."
The evening began with Tuatara, an instrumental sextet featuring Buck, Martin, Harwood, McCaughey, Mike Stone and Sherik. The set was like a game of musical chairs, because every time the music stopped, everyone walked around the stage to a different instrument; Martin alone was featured on marimbas, timbales, drums, acoustic bass, vibes and steel drums. Unfortunately, the band's music was neither inventive enough to thrive as jazz nor melodic enough to thrive as pop. The Minus 5 are McCaughey's project, and the lion-maned singer-songwriter, in orange sunglasses and a black bowling shirt, led his six colleagues through pop-rock parodies from the album "The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy." This was genuinely amusing when the tunes were bouncy and catchy, but the slow numbers didn't have the humor or melody to justify the dreary pacing.