The theater space at Lyric Hall was only a quarter full when the Jellyshirts were ready to play. Through the doorway to the hall, the bar, and the front of the building, voices trickled, a sign that the people who’d come to hear the music didn’t know it was starting.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are the Jellyshirts,” said vocalist and guitarist Bret Logan. With a quick signal to the rest of the band — Nick Appleby on bass and Scott McDonald on drums — the began to play. And the people came from the rest of the building to listen.
The Jellyshirts were part of an evening of psychedelic rock that just happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was celebrated all over the press on that day. But the show was a celebration of New Haven’s own psych-rockers as well, and a testament to their longevity.
Formed in 1988, the Jellyshirts have four studio albums and “several live ones,” as the band’s website has it, under their belt. At Lyric Hall, they played with the ease of old pros, drawing the crowd in with their energy and musicianship as well as their low-key banter.
“This is an outtake from our last album, and it turned out to be everybody’s favorite on the album,” Logan said, without saying what the song was called. But by the end of the song, it was easy to see why the band’s fans had taken to it. The room got fuller as the Jellyshirts’ set progressed — “wow, there’s people out there!” Logan exclaimed after a loud burst of applause — and half the crowd danced to their last song, moving side to side, spinning with their arms out, kicking their knees in the air.
“Remember,” Logan said after thanking everyone for coming, “$10 T-shirts and free CDs. Because we’re billionaires.”
The crowd stuck around for Happy Ending. “Thank you,” frontman Hank Hoffman said midway through the band’s set. “It’s warm up here!” Happy Ending — Hank Hoffman on vocals and guitar, Richard Brown on guitar, Scott Amore on keyboards, Randy Stone on bass, and Tom Smith on drums — kept it that way. The band has been around since 1983, when it released Have A Nice Day!, an album that mixed hard rock and folk rock in a psychedelic blender to create a set of songs dripping with Reagan-era anxieties about nuclear annihilation.
“This one’s called ‘So Blind,” Hoffman said, explaining that it was written by former bandmate Jay Mundy back in the ‘80s, “when we worried that we had a president who was going to destroy the planet.”
“But we don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Stone said. Nervous laughter filled the room.
“We play it to recall those simpler times,” Hoffman deadpanned.
If the lyrics to Happy Ending’s songs showed how things can sometimes have a way of going in cycles, the music showed how the passage of time can deepen them. With kaleidoscopic projections of faces, hands, drawings, and landscapes swirling behind the band, Happy Ending was at its best during its guitar freakouts, when Amore, Stone, and Smith created tossing waves of rhythm and Hoffman and Brown traded off solos and rhythm work seamlessly, giving the music a chance to fly. Happy Ending closed with its 2007 song “Mr. Sinister,” followed by a cover of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” that turned its piano balladry into a guitar anthem, and its orchestral flourishes into a rising storm of noise that, just for a moment, collapsed the ‘60s and the ‘80s into the present.
The evening finished with a set from Mercy Choir (in which, in full disclosure, this reporter plays bass). A musical generation younger than Jellyshirts and Mercy Choir — yet with another younger musical generation already beneath it — the band’s set showed that New Haven’s own tradition of rock bands that get just a little weird — or maybe a lot — just keeps going.