Little Mascara braves bad sound on path to glory

by Amy Kingsley

Jessie Derusha gently elbows her way up to a crowded bar at Solaris Jan. 29.

‘“So, I am in one of the bands,’” she sweetly intones to a bartender held up momentarily in her trip from ice bucket to booze shelf. ‘“And I heard that band members get two Yuengling each?’”

The bartended nods. Derusha, edged up at the copper bumper between spillover from a 25th birthday party for local WFMY anchorwoman Heidi McGuire, has young features powdered pale under a Frank Gehry construction of jet-black hair. She adjusts the lace strap on a sheer leopard print dress she wears over an ivory slip. Outlined wings stretch between her shoulder blades; she has smaller tattoos on her upper arms.

‘“Can I get them both at the same time?’”

Another nod, then a quick swivel back to the taps and the unceremonious deposit of two expertly poured pints. Derusha squints a lopsided smile as she thanks the bartender, who is already several yards away setting drinks in front of other customers.

She hoists her beverages and heads back toward the stage, grinning absently. Drinks over her head, one in each fist, she squeezes back through a clot of young professionals who look like the dream cast for a spot supporting any number of downtown drinking establishments. Toward the patio end of the bar the density of polo shirts and color-treated coiffures thins.

Most of the dinner tables have cleared for the night, and Derusha’s band, Little Mascara, is setting up to play for the jeans-and-sneakers crowd. Bar patrons squeeze in a few last-minute orders from the tapas menu before the kitchen closes and the cooking moves out to the stage.

By the time Little Mascara gathers for their traditional pre-show shot of whiskey, the Solaris crowd has split like a fault line. Gangs of college students and their unstudied contemporaries jitter on the hardwood while the partygoers mingle at the other, quieter end of the bar. Finally, the members of Little Mascara lean into their opening song.

They are a quintet comprised of drums, bass, guitar, keyboard and vocals. Their sound, like Derusha’s style, borrows from New York early and proto-punk. The songs are fast, simple and catchy, but delivered on this occasion with a half-snarl.

Her vocals rarely rise above the raucous instrumentation, and she leans timidly on the mic stand. Thirty-two ounces of Yuengling and another one of Jack appear to have little affect on the diminutive singer. After the set, she explains her unsure vocals.

‘“Look, I’m just going to tell you straight up,’” she says. ‘“We were awful tonight. None of us could hear ourselves.’”

Despite the shortcomings, the fans enjoyed it. Musical precision has never been the calling card of early punk, and the fans danced through the false starts and flubbed lines. The band members traded shrugs and threw arms around each other after the set.

Whiskey was not the first beverage that brought the members of Little Mascara together. It was cappuccino. Guitarist Chris Micca met Derusha when she worked at Lindley Park Coffee Shop. His other band, Boot, wrote a song called ‘“Jessie’s Girl’” about the barista, and the two became fast friends shortly thereafter.

That was about two years ago, and in relating the story Derusha demurs a bit, as if acknowledging its cuteness as inappropriate for punk rock creation myth. The two had some time to get over that when they started Little Mascara with drummer Toaster Seward and bassist Kirk Brown last summer.

The music they play now is ‘– unlike their back story ‘– anything but precious. It is influenced by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Replacements and Detroit Cobras, who they were listening to when they came together.

‘“There’s about twenty years difference between the youngest and oldest members of the bands,’” Derusha says. ‘“So we have a lot of different influences.’”

They added keyboard player Adrienne Byrd just last month, but the newcomer already had 15 songs to learn.

‘“They’re so prolific,’” Byrd said. ‘“They’ve got well over a dozen songs.’”

So far, keyboard parts have only been written for a few of the songs, and it doesn’t look like any of them are on tonight’s set list. A few songs in, Byrd abandons the keyboard to shimmy and shake maracas downstage.

Little Mascara is on the fast track. They have a studio recording under way and a deal with indie record label Angel Food Music. Micca says they plan to have an album out by May.

In the meantime, they are playing every couple of weeks; the next three are in Winston-Salem at Rubber Soul, The Garage and new late-night venue Elliot’s Review. At each they will down a bit of aged whiskey, don their vintage equipment and hoist the banner for first-wave punk.

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