The psychedelic era exacted a heavy toll on most of its cult heroes, leaving the majority of those who survived in serious physical and/or psychological disrepair. Somehow, Tom Rapp, the guiding light behind space-folkies Pearls Before Swine, managed to sidestep those troubles — ending up not on the street or in jail, but practicing civil-rights law in Philadelphia.
Rapp performs infrequently these days — two or three times a year at most — but the inactivity has neither dulled his quiescent voice nor his considerable skill as a storyteller.
Abetted by multi-instrumentalists Tim Renner and Prydwyn — who plucked what may have been the first harp to adorn the stage of CBGB in the club’s long existence — he proved dreamily compelling on vintage material like “Translucent Carriages” and the anarchist love ballad “Drop Out.”
Rather than mount a by-the-numbers nostalgia show, however, Rapp also peppered his laconic set with several songs culled from “A Journal of the Plague Year,” his first album in more than a quarter-century.
While the newer material he performed was slightly more linear than his rarefied past work, Rapp hasn’t abandoned his fixation on things Greek and medieval — stylistic filips that were ingrained into “Hopelessly Romantic” and “The Swimmer,” a suicide allegory dedicated to Kurt Cobain.
The heaviness of those songs aside, Rapp’s set overwhelmingly accentuated the positive — and the playful. He pulled out an electric auto-harp for a breezy version of Tom Lehrer’s “The Old Dope Peddler,” and capped off the tongue-in-cheek subversion with “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse,” a ditty that confounded ’60s censors with a chorus that spelled out four-letter words in Morse code.
The Bevis Frond, originally slated to headline the show, took an opening slot after frontman Nick Saloman admitted to fears of following Rapp. The London-based trio nonetheless delivered a scintillating set of guitar rave-ups that suffused ornate psychedelic structures with Joy Division-styled existential dread.