THE GIVE AND TAKE "When you have themes of struggle," says We Are Augustines' Eric Sanderson (left, with Rob Allen and Billy McCarthy), "most bands get to the point where it stops giving back."
The first time I heard the music of Pela, I was alone. It was after 3 am, driving along Mass Ave in my VW Jetta, and the calendar either just recently flipped to 2006 or was preparing to. I slid an early promotional copy of Anytown Graffiti into my car's stereo, and by the second song, "Lost to the Lonesome," I was no longer by myself. I was, oddly, having an imaginary conversation, right there over the frozen waters of the Charles as Boston turns to Cambridge, with my biological mother, a person I had never met and to whom I'd never given much thought. The exchange played out through the lyrics and voice of Billy McCarthy. I didn't listen to the rest of the record; I drove to my destination in silence.
A few months later, and Pela was in Allston for a gig at Great Scott. I mentioned the incident, which still gives me chills, to McCarthy, the Brooklyn band's principal songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist. The song, as it turned out, was actually about a decision to abandon a dead-end lifestyle and venture to the unknown, but McCarthy revealed to me that he, too, was adopted, and offered a lyric sheet. Another nerve was struck, as this person, this old soul, though roughly my age, born 3000 miles away on the opposite coast and now residing in New York, channeled something inside of me that I never could. They played a set that night that was raw, intense, and passionate. McCarthy's booming, gruff voice could knock you cold one moment, then cradle you in a pit of hopeful despair in another. Pela was comfort music. And it seemed inevitable that this was the next great American rock band.
McCarthy is back at Great Scott on Tuesday, along with Pela bassist Eric Sanderson, this time billed as We Are Augustines. They are a trio, rounded out by British drummer Rob Allen. (Pela guitarist Nate Martinez now leads a new project, Thieving Irons, and drummer Tomislav Zovich gracefully bowed out of the picture entirely, opting instead to raise a family.) They'll likely play a few Pela songs and incite strong Pela memories, but they're a new band with old ambitions and a batch of new songs that were mostly born as Pela songs. So what happened between that first show at Great Scott and this one? Pretty much everything.
Pela's story began in 2002, at the height of New York's art-rock explosion, where bands like the Strokes, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rode Dirty Apple cool to global acclaim. But Pela were never flashy or the type for magazine covers; they were a working-class band busy making Americana-tinged rock-and-roll music with roots that reflected dirty fingernails and life-weary smiles. With a fanbase already developed off earlier EPs and recordings and bolstered by a powerful live show, they released Anytown Graffiti in 2007 via fledging hometown label Great Society. It made more than 35 "best of" lists that year, its songs eventually appearing in TV shows Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, and Veronica Mars, and in 2008 it was named by independent Seattle radio station KEXP the 112th "best ever" album of all time.