Prabir and the Substitutes Revinent Rock Music

Richmond-based Indie pop-rock band Prabir and the Substitutes showered us with a truckload of fun at Norfolk’s Taphouse on Saturday after Thanksgiving. They tricked the clock by performing with extreme energy. They danced unabashedly and knocked the Thanksgiving food lethargy out of some of us in the audience. Most impressively, Prabir and the Substitutes transformed familiar and vintage rock music tropes.

Prabir and the Substitutes aren’t really about the dark, somber aspects of the blues. Marked by a postmodernist split personality, their blues comfortably drifts among the transient references of American popular music. Most striking to my ear is their leaning toward the 1950s Rock n Roll reinventions of the blues, a kind of party blues that appealed to the mass market of white middle class youth in the United States. Their blues-on-speed comes and goes in a hurry. No preponderance and reverence, just sheer exhilaration. Prabir, the band’s lead singer, moves his hips while doing the “Twist”, part Elvis Presley, part James Brown.

Some critical sources have associated Prabir and the Substitutes with the Beatles. (And they have toured with some Beatles cover bands.) With great songwriting skills, Prabir and the Substitutes whip out songs of distinct characters. The band uses a Wilco-esque humor and boldness presenting the 12-bar structure of the blues into little discreet packages, readily identifiable yet refreshing. They jumble up these packages with other memorable moments in rock history by covering one of Talkings Heads' dance rock songs and doing 3 or 4-part harmony. During the set, they even abandoned their loud, amplified rock instruments and formed a circle to sing a capella in a four-part style of barbershop quartet for an entire number. Prabir and the Substitutes seemed secure of their stage identity that they let in silence and unamplified sounds with confidence.

Interesting reinventions of the blues are hard to come by these days. Using vintage rock instruments and some “roots” sounds like banjo picking, the Black Keys hit plentiful blue notes in their songs and exhibit a general inebriated aesthetic as imagined of the 1920s and 30s country blues guitarists of the Mississippi Delta. Unlike the Black Keys, Prabir and the Substitutes are not quite as concerned with the various notions of “authenticity” when it comes to the blues. Blatantly or self-consciously, they seem to peel away the centrality of country blues men of the American south in the rock music canon as constructed by the blues-rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, and Jimmy Page of the 60s and 70s.

I am a sucker for well-studied and well-composed music. The only thing I could ask for more is a similar kind of attention to the lyrics. I have to say, I felt some RVA pride at this show. This is not because I went to school with Prabir. It was because Prabir and the Substitutes reminded me how many Richmond-based musicians strive on maximizing the use of their cultural, intellectual, and financial resources, regardless of the meagerness of environment, while being innovative.

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