As the crowd filled the room, new booker Alex Weiss -- in a swanky coat and tie -- sipped a martini and mingled with the guests, including many scenesters curious to see the Echo's much-heralded improvements.
Booths line the periphery of the main room, and the bar has been moved back a few feet to enable better movement through the previously bottlenecked area leading to the always-crowded side lounge. The bathrooms are freshly painted, but the music room has (unfortunately) been stripped of the cool Methane Studios concert posters that once lined both walls. Considering the club's history of presenting local and international artists, the expanse of empty wall space seems a bit sterile. Weiss' delightful color posters plugging featured shows would look great on permanent display. The Methane folks are still producing art prints for Echo shows, and a limited-edition poster for next week's Breeders show is currently available (see www.methanestudios.com for details). Perhaps they can start anew with artifacts from this year.
Carrying on in the adventurous tradition of previous booker Liz Morris, Weiss presented a pleasingly diverse lineup of three acts that, for better or worse, aren't afraid to let their influences show. Early arrivals mingled and chatted as Nashville singer/songwriter Tiffany-Anastasia Lowe opened the show with "Man in Black," a song about her step-grandfather, Johnny Cash, from her debut EP Queen of Everything. Lowe -- daughter of country-music rebel Carlene Carter and stepdaughter of British new waver Nick Lowe -- made her Atlanta debut armed only with an acoustic guitar, quickly captivating the crowd with her great songs and punky fashion-model good looks.
Lowe's deceptively simple strumming is reminiscent of her legendary grandmother, Maybelle Carter, yet Lowe didn't imitate any genre. Her rock- and folk-based songs are obviously influenced by her formative years traveling between Los Angeles, Nashville and London. Her startlingly smooth cover of the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," a nod to her European roots, was quietly effective. The brief but memorable performance featured most of the songs from her EP and concluded with two excellent new tunes.
Plunging fiercely into action following Lowe, the Penetrators began their all-instrumental set with the motor-sports-inspired anthem "Redlined" as an expanding mob of fans moved toward the front of the stage. Some even "air-surfed" to the tidal waves of sound emitting from the band's huge amplifiers and Fender spring reverb tanks.
A special highlight came when rhythm guitarist Spanky Twangler paused between songs to introduce the group's acoustic guitarist, Jet Powers, who recently returned from a military assignment overseas. "While we were playing rock 'n' roll last month," bellowed Twangler through a megaphone, "this man was flying a plane over Afghanistan!" The dancing masses roared a hero's welcome, and the band broke into "Casbah."
A genuine jewel amid a block of new numbers, the Penetrators' wrenching reading of Ennio Morricone's "Guns Don't Argue," from the 1965 spaghetti western A Pistol for Ringo, expertly mimicked the original performance. While adding a mighty overlay of surf twang, Rip Thrillby's Fender Jaguar did the work of an entire horn and string section as the lead guitarist played with an orchestral virtuosity rarely witnessed on a rock club stage.
The Tom Collins -- who took the stage at 1 a.m. -- stormed their way through a blur of spiraling Zeppelinesque bombast and classic rock poses, its potent mix of '70s excess intoxicating the mob. The cherries in the band's glass were a surprise cover of "Oh Well" and the sweaty show-closing version of the Pretenders' "The Wait."
Here's a toast to owner Janet Ridgeway and the Echo staff: long live rock, be it dead, alive -- or slightly renovated.
Additional reporting by Gregory Nicoll.