Wednesday night marked a commemoration at Cafe Nine of the anniversary of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide on April 5, 1994. The Tet Offensive, New Haven’s rock ‘n’ roll string quartet, marked the occasion by performing Nirvana’s landmark 1991 album Nevermind almost in its entirety (only the hidden track was missing).
But the openers to the show, the Right-Offs, served up just as fitting a tribute by reminding the crowd of the power a rock trio — just a guitar, bass, and drums — could have when it got down to the business of making noise.
The band introduced itself with two stabs of opening chords. Heads in the audience snapped to attention as the trio — Max Loignon on vocals and guitar, Than Rolnick on bass, and Robert Breychak on drums — ripped into their first song. The Right-Offs sounded tight, even tighter than the band is on its last release, 2016’s Quiet Down, and more ferocious, raging around the twists and turns in the band’s clever, tightly wound material. The energy the trio poured into the opener to that album, “Ways of the Western World,” brought out the intelligence in the songwriting (“History is a well-coiffed murderer,” the opening line goes) and made the song feel as urgent as ever.
Loignon called Breychak “the real hero … we got a bad mother on the drums tonight,” and Breychak and Rolnick made for a formidable rhythm section. But Loignon, dressed in a collared shirt and tie, black jeans, and sneakers, filled the big shoes of frontman easily. His voice had a natural croon to it that he could push into a raspy scream when needed. Likewise, he could coil his guitar playing into a tight, percussive chop, or let it loose into a wall of noise. At one point, he let his guitar go all the way, first strumming it into a frenzy and then holding his hands up in surrender as the guitar itself kept resonating, higher tones of feedback soaring over a rush of static, as the rhythm section drove the song forward.
He also proved to be a showman to the end, closing the set with the Elvis Costello-like “Night Is A Shadow” first by strumming the guitar into a squall, then windmilling like Pete Townsend used to. He dropped to his knees, then to his back, rolling on the floor, all while keeping time. Somewhere in there he lost his guitar pick. It didn’t matter. He had people in the crowd screaming anyway. (The Right-Offs play New Haven again May 6 at Cafe Nine and June 23 at Three Sheets.)
“Who here loves Nirvana?” Rolnick said. “Admit it.”
He was kidding — no one needed to admit that they were there to celebrate the band’s lasting influence as the Tet Offensive, fronted by composer and singer Brian Robinson, took the stage. With Breychak on drums, Alexis Thorne and (in full disclosure) this reporter on violins, Anjanine Bonet on viola, and Laura Klein (of Western Estates) on cello, playing arrangements written by Robinson, the six-piece led the house through a near-singalong of Nevermind, from the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to “On A Plain.” The audience seemed to get rowdier with each song, until the elegiac closer “Something in the Way,” which Robinson mixed in the score with elements from Frederic Chopin’s famous funeral march. Except for an errant voice or two, no one said a word. Until the end, when everyone cheered.