On a visit to Ireland's remote Dingle Peninsula years ago, my wife and I got wind of a music session at a local pub. In a back room, local musicians — mostly farmers — gathered with townsfolk, friends, and relatives. It was a rousing good time, with music as rich and polished as anything I've ever heard. At one point they called to the stage a young woman in the audience. She sang in a voice as clear and moving as a spring sky after a heavy rainstorm.
Walking into the Del Rio on a Tuesday evening to hear FUBAR is the closest thing to that experience I've had in Ann Arbor. They don't play Irish music, but the sensation is similar, even down to the unexpected thrills from a disarming female vocalist.
Seeing FUBAR is like sitting in on a jam session among discerning pop-rock veterans. They play with energy and skill that would be the envy of far-better-known bands — and with an enthusiasm that comes from playing the stuff they want to play. Apart from some highly compelling original material, most of their numbers are covers — but not of the standards that oldies stations have played to death.
Organized and fronted by Randy Tessier, the bassist of George Bedard and the Kingpins, FUBAR ranges idiosyncratically across the pop landscape of the last half century, from the Everly Brothers to Etta James to the Kinks to Jackie Wilson to U2. When FUBAR covers songs from well-known groups such as the Byrds, it's likely to be something obscure like "You and Me" rather than "Mr. Tambourine Man." This six-piece ensemble is equally adept at reinvigorating catchy but little-heard R&B tunes, such as Maxine Brown's infectious "Oh, No, Not My Baby." And not too many bands would reach for the flipped-out psychedelic frenzy of Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" and make it sound powerful and fresh. Most remarkably, FUBAR tackles the 1960s San Francisco cult group Love, spinning out energetic, inventive covers of two of that enigmatic group's most complex songs, "Alone Again Or," with its Latin-style saxophone wails, and "A House Is Not a Motel."
You don't expect a bunch of seasoned musicians to be this daring. But Tessier is a wild man — like a caged animal shaking his cell bars — and he's put together a band of musicians' musicians. Out front is the unprepossessing Sophia Hanifi, formerly of Map of the World, who doesn't look or act as if she has the kind of tart, tangy, soulful voice that can jolt your heart. The contrast between her almost evanescent stage presence and the power of her interpretations is disconcerting. The combination of Hanifi's sassy vocals, Tessier's rebel-rock attitude, and the rest of the band's talent and verve restores the heart and soul and unrepentant energy that rock used to have before it was hijacked by self-obsessed ironists.
FUBAR is at Leopold Bros. on Wednesday, June 12, and at the Top of the Park on Sunday, June 30.