By James Sullivan
press kit video (excerpt) (3.48MB)
Anticipation was high for the headliners: the wacky "quartet" actually contained no fewer than ten members, including cello, pedal steel, and clarinet, and the man called Opal Foxx was said to wear workboots and a granny dress and sing with the sandpaper rasp of Tom Waits. REM's Michael Stipe had produced some Opal Foxx tracks; members of his band huddled in a rear corner of the club, certifying the show's Significance. Few in attendance had more than a vague idea who the comparatively conventional four-piece Magnapop were. Around Athens and Atlanta, the group had been calling themselves Swell. Recently, though, they'd begun receiving complaints from the San Francisco group of the same name, prompting the change of moniker. Despite the confusing identity and the daunting prospect of warming up for the spectacle that was Opal Foxx, Magnapop set up their gear and proceeded to tear through a thoroughly invigorating set. Guitarist Ruthie Morris, then in her late 20s, played with a raw, studied fury that wiped the grin off the tired notion that women can't play guitar. Bounding bassist Shannon Mulvaney toyed with his bandmates' personal space, his guitar slung down to his ankles, while singer Linda Hopper, already the band's rock'n'roll veteran, exuded a certain magnetism that suggested a lot more creative depth than the usual sex-kitten vapidity. After the set, as the band members were humbly loading out their own stuff through the club's front door, a budding writer approached Morris and told her that he'd loved the show. Visibly gratified by the attention of a single notebook-toter in a sea of industry jabberjaws, she pressed a self-produced demo tape into the palm of my hand. These years later, Morris and Hopper are sitting in a sparsely-furnished coffee house just off Haight Street with the same writer, discussing their second full-length album, Rubbing Doesn't Help, the one that may very well convince the same free-drink-ticket-waving hotshots who chattered through the New York set of the maturing group's considerable merits.
"It was a weird vibe that night," Morris recalls, downing a double mocha in anticipation of a planned shopping spree at one of the Haight's choicest used-clothing stores. Though the band's friends and acquaintances were urging them to give out tapes at the New York conference, "We were like, 'This feels icky,'" Morris laughs. "So we gave out two tapes that night." The second went to "this Dutch guy who said, 'You're the best band I've seen all week.'" He's since helped them secure invitations to play some of the most desirable summer festivals across the Atlantic, where, like so many of their indie counterparts, Magnapop enjoys much stronger name-recognition than they do on their home turf.
The group is relaxing in San Francisco after playing a small-club tune-up in preparation for their summer-long support of their new release. At the Paradise Lounge on the previous Saturday, they commanded the stage, proving themselves seasoned students of the rock'n'roll religion. At the Paradise, as they had years earlier in New York, Morris wielded her guitar like she was born with it fused to her thigh. Mulvaney hopped and jostled in betrayal of his plaid-shirted, Chuck Taylored persona, and Hopper, rocking back and forth with her mic stand, glared confidently through multi-colored lights - not so much in contempt or defiance as with the sheer knowledge that it was simply her hour to be watched. New drummer Mark Posgay proved to be a welcome addition, bashing away with infectious abandon.
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