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40 years in, punk rock band Nervous Eaters are as rowdy as ever

Nervous Eaters (Courtesy Carissa Johnson)
Nervous Eaters (Courtesy Carissa Johnson)

There’s a lot to cover when you’re talking about Nervous Eaters. Formed sometime in the mid-1970s, the Boston-based punk rock group experienced an era that we’ll probably never see again, a time when clubs across the city shook with the sound of rock and roll on any given night of the week. Some people go as far as labeling Nervous Eaters one of Boston’s first punk bands, a title earned from countless nights playing The Rathskeller — ubiquitously known as “The Rat” — in Kenmore Square, where they held a stint as the house band. “[Nervous Eaters] would open for anybody that would come through — Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The Stranglers, The Police, The Go-Go’s,” says Brad Hallen, the group’s bass player. “Everybody played there.”

Shaped by the city’s youthful college crowd and its gruff, townie demeanor, Nervous Eaters, fronted by chief songwriter Steve Cataldo, represented a stage of Boston rock history defined by the convergence of punk and Top 40 rock radio. “Loretta,” a jagged, girl-doting tune and the group’s most popular song in the late-’70s, was equal parts New York Dolls and The Cars, bluesy and melodic, but with a calloused edge. “[Steve] Cataldo is one of the architects of what made everything possible,” Hallen says. “People don’t really realize that because they weren’t around during that time. But I was, and I know.”

Now, some 40-odd years later and with a revised lineup, Nervous Eaters find themselves back in the throes of old school rock ‘n’ roll with “Monsters + Angels” (out Nov. 11), an album so rowdy and energetic, it feels plucked from the recorded archives of The Rat. Though its members are well into their 60s, Nervous Eaters head into 2023 only slightly more tame from their punkish heyday.

“We’re all getting older here, there is more self-reflection here. It’s a natural part of aging. But it’s a beautiful thing,” Hallen says, who also performed co-production duties on the album. Such wisdom can be gleaned in between strums of the 12-string guitar on “Superman’s Hand,” a Tom Petty-esque ode to togetherness. “The world is just so f---ed up right now,” Hallen says bluntly. “‘Superman’s Hands’ is a metaphor for helping somebody else.”

Elsewhere, not much has changed for Nervous Eaters in terms of scope and vision. Like in “Loretta,” the crux of Cataldo’s songwriting has been relationships — mainly girlfriends — and such is the case now. Songs like “Want You Like Before” and “End of the World Girl” rumble with the same blithe disregard to decibel levels as the band had in 1978, a flurry of crunchy guitars and shout-sing vocals about the birds and the bees.

Hallen maintains that Cataldo is “writing the best songs of his career.” That’s high praise for someone who was once courted by major labels in the ‘80s following the boom of underground rock. “Record companies were coming from far and wide to Boston after The Cars broke to sign bands,” he says, noting that The Cars’ Ric Ocasek produced a 10-song demo that attracted Elektra Records-- the label would eventually release Nervous Eaters’ debut in 1980. In asking Hallen if the band had any particularly wild stories from the days of The Rat, he responded judiciously: “Well, maybe we don’t want any of those stories in writing.” Such secrets line the lyric sheets of their discography.

“Monsters + Angels” feels like an attempt to revive Boston’s gritty underground, a reminder of the creative commerce that used to drive the city. Like many rock ‘n’ roll records before this one, the meaningfulness of the music is guided less by any sort of greater manifesto or concept, and more by an unadulterated energy. And despite many starts and stops over the years, personnel changes, shifting tides, the pandemic, etc., Nervous Eaters' newest effort is not short on energy.


Nervous Eaters perform at The Burren in Somerville on Saturday, Nov. 5.

Related:

Charley Ruddell Twitter Music Writer
Charley Ruddell is a freelance music critic and contributor for WBUR.

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