INTIMATELY LOUD: THE JON AUER INTERVIEW

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After a year of loss (drummer Darius Minwalla and former bassist Joe Skyward both passed away) and of new beginnings (the release of their first record in six years, SOLID STATES), the Posies – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, with drummer Frankie Siragusa – hit the road with a string of secret, “Pop-Up” shows. Playing in unconventional locations and venues, the newly revitalized band has hit upon one of the more intriguing ways to get their music out to the most die-hard Posies fans. I had the opportunity to speak with Jon Auer before a recent show in Minneapolis, which found him traveling and taking a ferry to his appointed destination.

THE MULE: So, you’ve been doing this since you were… what, seventeen? The Posies, solo work, REM, Big Star…

JON AUER: Well, yes…there’s solo work and I’ve been in Big Star. Ken’s done REM and also Big Star… we’ve both done many other things and worked in many different situations with different people… for instance, I’ve also worked on a record with William Shatner and Ben Folds (2004’s HAS BEEN).

THE MULE: Well, there you go. That’s even more important; that’s really impressive!

JON: Right, haha! But, anyway… you were saying?

THE MULE: How do you keep things fresh? How do you maintain that initial excitement? You know… what you felt at the beginning?

JON: I think it’s by trying to not repeat ourselves. That’s had a huge impact on the amount of enjoyment that I or we get out of what we do. I mean, I think it’s the same in life; if you’re sorta coasting and doing what you’ve always done perhaps it’s nice for awhile but eventually it can become stale. I mean, it may be comfortable in a way but… is it exciting? That’s the question. And, I think we’ve been very good about making the effort to not just take an easy route when we make a record or try something new. I think that if you examine every one of our records there are common threads for sure but they are all very different, each their own distinct thing… like little aural time capsules of where we were at the point in time we made them. I don’t know, man… I mean, there are bands that just try to do one thing and they do it – like Orville Redenbacher, you know? “Do one thing and do it better than anybody else” haha! – That works for certain groups… AC/DC springs to mind; I mean, I don’t really think I’ll be expecting a new AC/DC record to surprise me. If they do, that would be kinda cool but, by the same token – no offense to AC/DC – will I really need a new AC/DC record if it doesn’t? I mean… I could be wrong but I’d wager it’s probably just gonna sound like what you would expect. The Posies aren’t like that. We fall into the camp of musicians and artists who ask “What’s the point of repeating yourself?” But, the funny thing is, though we often make concerted efforts to sound massively different and then, you know…. we are who we are anyways. It may be different from what we’ve done before, often very much so, but it still sounds like “us.” It doesn’t ever sound like a completely different band because it still has the vocals and the harmonies and the way that we write songs, it’s just… It’s more like buying a new outfit ’cause you wanna try a new look or feel or maybe like trying some kind of new food that you’ve never had before because you don’t want to keep the same items on the menu all the time. It’s that kind of vibe. That’s what keeps it fresh: The new ideas and approaches.

The Posies (Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow) (photo credit: DOT PIERSON)

The Posies (Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow) (photo credit: DOT PIERSON)

And, adding to that, this whole method of touring that we’re utilizing now is another way in which we’ve been able to re-invigorate the process because it’s not being done in way that we’ve experienced ourselves before. It’s a new format, a new line-up… we’re going out as a three-piece, playing unlikely spaces, unusual venues. We’ve turned it into a way of doing things where it’s just… the band. We are the crew, we are the roadies, we are the ones who sell the merchandise… we’re the drivers. We do it all.

THE MULE: So, it’s almost back to the beginning again.

JON: In a way, yes. We’re finding… you’d think it would be kind of like, “Oh jeez, what have we taken on? It’s too much!” But, the opposite has occurred where I feel like, “Wow, I’ve got a real sense of purpose here” because there’s always something to do and nobody’s doing it for us. You either succeed or fail by your own hand, whatever you have to accomplish on any given day. It’s really kinda up to you; there’s no one else to shoulder anything on. All the activity morphs into having a lot of satisfaction with what gets accomplished, which is a ton.

THE MULE: Right. Uh… how did this idea of the pop-up show come about and how does that exactly work?

JON: Well, as far as this recent touring we’re doing, Ken toured in a very similar manner with an artist named Holly last year and he thought it would work really well with us… and he was right, big time. Due to scheduling, we missed a window in 2016 to do a regular club tour and this is what we did instead and it was a real eye opener, a pleasant surprise. That said, I’ve got to go back a little farther even. I realize that playing living rooms or atypical spaces isn’t a new concept. I mean, other people have been and are doing it and I admit that even as a solo artist, I’ve done… I had a nice little… what would you call it? Not a tour per se, but I had a nice little thing going where I would do certain house concerts every year at the same places since the mid-2000s. I had a nice group of regulars, really cool people, that would have me to visit and perform and they were always super great places and people there were just people there to listen. The audiences were a nice cozy size and merch sales were always good. Often there would be excellent bottles of wine around, you know… nice meals and you were well taken care of and had a great time hanging out around the show as well. There’s a lot to be said for that way of doing it; you take that and compare that to the model of maybe playing a dingy rock club in some city and then staying in, say, a Motel 6, if you wanna be cost effective, and it’s not quite the same equation, is it? Haha! Don’t get me wrong… there are many cool, classic clubs in America but then there’s often the issue that not everybody in the club is there to see you. Like, maybe there’s someone that comes because they’re a friend of the bartender or they just come to casually check you out for a few songs or they just come because they got on the list for free and wanna drink beers and talk in the back and they aren’t listening to you anyway.

That’s why this whole pop-up thing, playing in these unique venues, is so… works so well, because you really don’t get anybody there that’s just a casual audience member; they’re all usually, generally, fans that have many of your records. Or, they’re bringing people with them who’ve never heard really us but are very curious, like they’re friends are trying to indoctrinate them into the ‘ways’ of the Posies, pass it on to them. People are very respectful and they’re there because they want to listen and have a fun hang. Not only that, they’re also willing to hear us play new stuff, you know? It’s not just someone showing up to hear the hit. You know what I mean? Like they want to hear the one song and then they’re gonna leave? That never happens. We actually play our entire new record in our set… we mix it in with other stuff, of course, but, we play all twelve songs most nights. Nobody seems to mind and I think we did a very good job of designing our set list so there’s just enough familiar stuff and new stuff mixed together in the right combination at the right times so that nobody gets bored or too anxious…us included. It’s worked out incredibly well. I mean, when you experience something like this and everybody has such a good time, you kind of wonder, “What’s the point of doing it the other way?” And, also, in terms of the whole pop-up concept, it really does add mystery to the whole event as well and I mean, hey…who doesn’t like a little mystery in life? That also keeps things interesting, keeps things humming. It makes everyone more curious and filled with more anticipation and then there’s also the surprise and payoff of showing up and finding out, “Oh, this is where the show is tonight!” Okay… I’m in a back yard in Phoenix. Or, I’m at some recording studio I’ve always wanted to go to that I didn’t know they did shows there. Or, my God, look at this amazing house and how good it would sound in here.” Anyway, it’s surprising how well it’s worked… and that’s why we’re doing it again: Because it was so good.

THE MULE: Very cool. So, you’ve kinda half way answered one of my… well, actually a couple of other questions. The first, about how the tour is going; obviously, it’s going swimmingly well. And, the other thing is, obviously, I’m talking to you not only because of SOLID STATES, but also because you are playing in kinda my back yard, next Wednesday, in Saint Louis. So, I was going to ask you what we could expect at the Saint Louis show.

The Posies (Ken Stringfellow, Frankie Siragusa, Jon Auer) (photo credit: RENE OONK)

The Posies (Ken Stringfellow, Frankie Siragusa, Jon Auer) (photo credit: RENE OONK)

JON: Well, you know… uh, it’s cool because I don’t think we’ve done a Posies show in Saint Louis since… I want to say… 2005 maybe? Is that even possible? Hmm… Maybe it was even longer ago than that, maybe Ken and I played as a duo last time around, in 2000 or so… it’s been a while, you know? The last time I was actually in Saint Louis for anything, I think, was to play with Big Star, at a small outdoor festival with Son Volt, I believe. I forget where it was…I want to say it was downtown by some impressive looking architecture, some State buildings or structures like that. This time around I think you can expect us to be psyched to be playing a place we haven’t really done enough playing in. And you can also expect something visceral … there’s a lot of energy in our show; I mean, the record’s very… it has a lot of energy in it but, it’s also rather lush and pretty and moody and the live show kicks all of it up a couple of notches at least, because it’s just… well, it’s louder for one thing! Word to the wise: Bring earplugs! I’d tell everybody to do that. It’s not a quiet show and a lot of these shows are in smaller and/or unusual spaces where the acoustics are more explosive sounding… So, it’s always good to have some protection for your ears. Seriously, folks. You can really expect some… We don’t phone it in, you know, just because we’ve been doing what we do for quite a while now. I mean, we really try to give it our all every night, no matter how far we have traveled to get there or if our bodies are aching or whatnot. I mean, there’s no point coming to do it if we’re not having… we just want people to have a great time and enjoy it ourselves.

THE MULE: Okay… this may be kind of a hard question for you to answer. But… uh, I’m gonna ask it anyway. How did the deaths of Darius and, later, Joe effect the recording process and plans for the tours you’ve been doing since?

JON: Well… Darius was… Oh, jeez… I mean, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t do justice to in an interview, honestly, you know. Explaining just how much of an impact not having Darius and then Joe around anymore had… just how much of an impact that’s had on my life, on our lives…well, I mean, in the case of Darius, you’re talking about someone who played in my solo band three years before he joined the Posies and then he was with the Posies fourteen years afterwards. He was pretty much my best male friend and I was devastated when he died. And, he died right near the beginning of… I’d say a third to maybe almost halfway through making SOLID STATES? So, the question for me then became, “What do I even want to make a record for anymore?” I was super distraught and confused by the loss and I was constantly trying to make sense out of losing him when ultimately there was no sense to be found in any of it. Eventually, what ended up happening was it worked its way into some of the remaining songs I hadn’t written yet and… how could it not, y’know? It’s funny, because I always think it’s kind of obvious but, many people, they need more direct clues or a clearer road map to figure it out because they often misconstrue a song’s meaning… and fair enough, people interpret songs the way they want to interpret them unless they’re clearly spelled out, sure. And, I bring in some… we often use unusual imagery and metaphors so, actually, it’s not always so straight forward. For instance, there’s a song “Unlikely Places,” I’ve seen many reviews of it now, and unless people knew what it was about, some seem to consider it… they think it’s about a boy and a girl relationship, a romantic relationship and it’s so far from that. It’s really about me dealing with the loss of Darius, what it did to me and where I was trying to go or get to to figure out how to deal with the loss. People can help you and you can get advice… you can do therapy and you can do whatever but, no one can really totally… It’s such a personal thing. No one can get you through it, to a place where you can live with it, but yourself in the end. I don’t know what you’ve experienced as far as loss… parental or… but, it was a total ‘before and after’ moment for me in life, losing Darius, and…well… that’s just the way it is. We did eventually soldier on and got back to the music but it was painful. There’s another song, “Rollercoaster Zen,” that is for Darius. If you really look at the lyrics to that, you can see that I’m talking about him… almost to him. The dreams I’ve had… I had… oh, God, I had some incredibly vivid dreams about him, like he was still here. I don’t know. I don’t wanna keep going on too much about it because it’s too hard to explain, totally. But, you get the vibe, right?

THE MULE: Yeah. I actually just lost my mother a few weeks ago and… I was actually her caregiver for the last ten years and… it’s rough, man.

JON: So you’ve been… You know – in an even more primal way, since it’s your mother – probably the stuff I’m talking about. It just is what it is but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You’ve just got to learn live with it eventually, you know? And it takes time. And it can bubble up at the weirdest times in the weirdest places, the grief, yes?

THE MULE: Right and, like you were saying, everybody is trying to help… there are the platitudes, “It’ll get better” and I know all that stuff but, there are times where it’s just like, “Leave me alone. Let me deal.”

Darius Minwalla; Joe Skyward (uncredited photos)

Darius Minwalla; Joe Skyward (uncredited photos)

JON: Yeah, and you know what?… It’s so true… at times, often there’s nothing worse than a platitude because… you know people mean well but, it really doesn’t do justice to the loss. It’s nobody’s fault, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t really help so… it would almost be better if people would… So, yeah, I feel for you, man. There’s been a couple for me recently… As mentioned, Darius… and right before we went our first tour this year in Europe, Joe passing as well…In his case, Joe had been dealing with his cancer for awhile so we knew that he was in trouble and trying to work through it but when he finally passed it happened so fast that it was shocking too. I mean, one day I just woke up to a Facebook message from our old drummer, Brian Young, who was in the band when Joe was in the band, and… it was just pretty much, “Joe passed.” and I was just…I felt like… it was hard to believe. So then it became not only one friend lost in the last couple of years, but two. It’s still hard to believe, to wrap my head around it all, that they are no longer with us. I don’t know how old you are; I’ll be forty-seven this year.

THE MULE: Yeah… I got you beat by a few years.

JON: Okay. Still, my brother and I were just talking about this… he mentioned that really we’re just getting to the point in our lives, the ‘season’ you could say, where that’s gonna be part of our lives from now on. Like, simply, the older you get, more loss can occur… Okay… we’re getting pretty philosophical here now but… it seems true enough.. The record ended up being a way to help me deal with some of that and it kinda does a little bit and helps me celebrate lost friends… but, I don’t think anyone likes that kind change, losing people close to you, learning about loss the hard way. It hurts. My God! But, ultimately…what else can you do? We’ve gotta get back to life and live as best we can.

THE MULE: Exactly. Well, let’s get back to some more, uh… rock and rolley kind of things. Actually, last question and I will let you get back to life. Beyond SOLID STATES and this tour, what is next for you, personally, and the band?

Dynamo Royale (Tiz Aramini, Jon Auer) (photo credit: JASON TANG)

Dynamo Royale (Tiz Aramini, Jon Auer) (photo credit: JASON TANG)

JON: I have some other projects that I’d like to promote more, spend more quality time with. There’s a duo project with Tiz Aramini called Dynamo Royale that I’m working on a proper release for. The record’s called STRAIGHT ON THE DIAGONAL and there will be more time to spread that around. You can find it and us on Bandcamp as well. It’s quite different from the Posies, perhaps more layered even, but it still has that kind of… it’s got my melodic sense woven in there with hers as well. It’s a very unique collaboration. I’d also like to make another solo record. It’s been… Jeez, the last one I put out, SONGS FROM THE YEAR OF OUR DEMISES was in 2006 so, like… I’m way overdue! And, there’s also a group I’m part of called Unseen Beings with Stephen Becker from Le Concorde and Brian Young, who played with Fountains of Wayne and now plays with The Jesus and Marychain, we have a record called AKA INFINITY due to be released next year. Then, hopefully, along with all that, we’re going to continue to realize some Posies reissues that we’ve been talking about. One of them has been out for a while – our first record, FAILURE – on this great label called Omnivore Recordings. They do excellent reissues with deluxe packaging and a lot of care, the works…we feel they like do things right, let’s put it that way. They’ve been asking to do our three major label records too: DEAR 23, FROSTING ON THE BEATER, and AMAZING DISGRACE. That’s been in talks for a while and I think 2017 might be the year for it, when they actually do come out or at least they start to come out.

And then, beyond that…I had so much fun doing this last round of touring, it was so reinvigorating and life affirming after everything we went through so, I think we’d… You never can predict what’s going to happen exactly but…I think we’d really like to try to make another Posies record and sooner than later, you know? Not wait another six years… Try to get one out in the no so distant future because… hey, we’re not getting any younger and we’re having so much fun. I think we all thought this, you know, that this is working, what we’re doing now feels good… we’re playing great, we’re enjoying it, we are a good working unit … and I don’t think we expect to enjoy it as much as we did. I certainly didn’t. To me, it feels like we thought, well, let’s see if we can do this even, after what we went through with losing our bandmates and… we pulled through and it feels… It feels really good. So, uh… I’d like some more of that feeling, please.

The Poseis (Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Franke Siragusa) (photo credit: MARC GOLDSMITH)

The Poseis (Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Franke Siragusa) (photo credit: MARC GOLDSMITH)

Jon and the Posies are playing a pop-up show in Saint Louis, on Wednesday, September 28. For ticket prices and location, visit the band’s website. Other upcoming tour dates and more news about the Posies are available there, as well.


JOHN THAYER: FACE TO FACE

(EON RECORDS; 2016)

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If that name looks vaguely familiar, there’s good reason for it… John’s little brother, Tommy, is Ace Frehley in KISS; not really – the younger Thayer, who spent a couple of decades as the band’s sorta right hand everyman, stepped into the boots and make-up when the original Space Ace left the band for the second (or was it the third?) and final time. But, this review isn’t about Tommy, it’s about his brother, John and his latest EP, called FACE TO FACE. John’s music is as far away from KISS as you’re likely to hear: A slick alterna-pop sound with a high gloss production sheen. Thayer and his current partner-in-crime, Rob Daiker, handle vocals, most instrumentation and production on this third release. The title track kicks things off, with some really nice – dare I say, “pretty?” – vocals and layers of strings, provided by a group called the Magik-Magik Orchestra. “Not Afraid” has a little harder feel; featuring a slightly Gothic tone and a solid guitar solo, the song is fairly impressive. As good as the track is, I’m just not sold on the over-production. I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing this one in a live setting… I’m betting that it absolutely burns on-stage with a full rock band.

John Thayer (uncredited photo)

John Thayer (uncredited photo)

Another strong entry is “Really Doesn’t Matter.” The number has a definite Tom Petty feel to it, delivered in a standard rock ‘n’ roll format with two guitars, bass and drums with the occasional orchestral flourish. “Angel” is what is called, within the industry, “Adult Contemporary.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that; the song really isn’t too bad, falling somewhere between Nsync and the fluffier bits from Goo Goo Dolls. On “Lonely Eyes,” the guitars have a harder edge and the orchestration somehow sounds rather ominous, if not downright vicious. The whole sound of the tune is kind of haunted, with a dark, lonely feel to it. The track threatens from the beginning, finally letting rip with a mean guitar solo. FACE TO FACE isn’t long, clocking in at just under nineteen minutes, and it sounds just a little too slick for my tastes but, the songs themselves and the performances are top notch; if you are a fan of the glossy pop and rock that dominated radio and MTV from the early 1980s into the pre-Grunge ’90s, John Thayer will sit nicely in your collection with those bands and records. You can order FACE TO FACE, as well as John’s previous EPs, LAUREL STREET and TAKE IT BACK from the artist’s website.


THE MONKEES: GOOD TIMES!

(RHINO RECORDS; 2016)

Monkees-Good-Times

If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?

You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!


ROB ZOMBIE: THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER

(ZODIAC SWAN RECORDS/T-BOY RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES; 2016)

The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Di

For whatever it’s worth, I was one of those people who could either take it or leave it as far as the wildly, improbably popular band White Zombie were concerned. Why? I don’t know… wrong time, wrong place? Maybe it was the demonic over-saturation at Alternative Radio (you seemingly couldn’t swing a severed head without hitting a DJ playing, having just played or getting ready to play “Thunder Kiss ’65” or “More Human Than Human” between 1992 and 1997 or so). Whatever, I was just never that into the band; however, fast forward a year or two and the release of vocalist/visionary Rob Zombie’s solo debut, HELLBILLY DELUXE, and I was hooked. In the ensuing years, the erstwhile banner-waver for low-rent, science-fiction based shock rock has expanded his influence, taking his playfully bent visions into other media… most successfully in the realms of indie comic books and movies. He’s also become quite the live draw, as well as an in-demand producer and co-writer in certain musical circles, as well as a professional “guest vocalist,” having made appearances on several Alice Cooper albums. When the Coopers were (finally!) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rob did the honors.

Rob Zombie (John Five, Rob Zombie, Piggy D, Ginger Fish) (publicity photo)

Rob Zombie (John Five, Rob Zombie, Piggy D, Ginger Fish) (publicity photo)

THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER (say that three times fast… heck, say that once without messing it up!) marks Zombie’s sixth solo release of twisted boogie metal, and though it would be easy to dismiss this record as just more of the same, it would appear that the living dead man still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Does it sound like Rob Zombie? Well… duh! You see, the thing about an artist like Rob is this: No matter how much someone complains about everything sounding the same, the first time Zombie and his band deviate one iota from the accepted sound and formula, the fans are gonna yell that he doesn’t care about his REAL fans and he has – DUNH, DUNH, DUNH! – sold out. So, THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… sticks to what has worked in the past, while adding just enough “different” to be subversive. “The Last of the Demons Defeated” is a 90-second introduction with Rob chanting/intoning “Electric warlock… electric warlock… electric warlock acid witch” over a massive tribal stomp. The second track begins with a cartoon voice delivering a well-known mantra of those uptight traveling tent revival preachers from the ’50s through the ’80s, decrying rock music as “Satanic cyanide” before erupting with a from-the-bowels Death Metal vocal over a Sabbath-worthy riff before a murderous Zombie relates his story of how rock turned him into a depraved maniac over a swirling cacophony of guitars (courtesy of this record’s secret weapon, John Five); the song’s title, obviously, is “Satanic Cyanide! The Killer Rocks On!” plus… bonus points for fitting the phrase “mohair coffin” into the lyrics. Continuing the insanely long titles, “The Life and Times of a Teenage Rock God” is more to form, with Zombie’s rumbling, staccato vocal delivery; there is a cool “Spaghetti Western” synth break toward the end of the track, provided by Zeuss. “Well, Everybody’s Fucking In a UFO” follows, a weird metal hoedown filled with allusions of getting high (either by smoking some weed or breathing some swamp gas), being abducted by aliens and being… uh… probed. Rob’s whacked-out backwoods voice is hilarious and definitely adds to the silliness. The exquisitely named interlude, “A Hears Overturns With the Coffin Bursting Open,” starts off with a voice repeating “So revolting and yet so interesting” over and over before giving way to a quite pretty acoustic guitar, disturbing in its elegance. The final tune on Side One of the vinyl version of THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… is “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Gore Whore,” is kind of a ’60s-style Farfisa-heavy garage homage to THE MUNSTERS and bad horror movies, featuring such genre-worthy lyrics as “She got Vincent Price tattooed on her thigh/Below a devil bat with a crazy eye” and “So much blood everywhere/And all she wants is more.” The images this number evokes makes it one of my favorites of this release.

Rob Zombie, OZZFEST (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rob Zombie, OZZFEST (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Side Two” of the record stays the course set by the first half, with “Medication For the Melancholy” playing up the misconception that celebrities have lives far-and-above those of “ordinary people,” steamrolling the more listener-friendly lyric put forth by Mark Knopfler more than thirty years ago with Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.” John Five once more delivers a trippy, effects-laden solo and suitably like-minded leads; Ginger Fish’s drumming is… BIG, as always. It would seem that “subtle” is something Ginger doesn’t do well, nor would we want him to. “In the Age of the Consecrated Vampire We All Get High” is more like White Zombie’s syncopated stomp than anything else on THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… , with an incredible backward solo from John. And, I don’t know if it’s the mix or the playback systems I’ve been listening on but, this is the first time on the album that Piggy D’s bass stands out, a wicked thump and rumble that perfectly fits this song. “Super-Doom-Hex-Gloom Part One” is another short (relatively speaking) interlude with a short spoken-word introduction before evolving into a series of computer blips and a throbbing synth bass, a weird piece of soundtrack music to an even weirder, cheaply produced early 1970s horror movie. With guitars set to stun and effects a-plenty from Zeuss’ keyboard and Piggy’s bass and Zombie’s processed voice delivering a litany recounting his reasons for being (“Well – I was born a rotten freak/Slicking back a widows peak,” “Well – I was born on Hullabaloo/Mind control is what I do”), “In the Bone Pile” is one of the more satisfying tracks on the record. Plus… ya gotta love the images that title conjures in your mind. “Get Your Boots On! That’s the End of Rock and Roll” is truly the only full-tilt rock and roll song here, with pummeling rhythms from Ginger and Piggy and a vicious solo from John Five. The record clocks in at 31 minutes, more or less, with each of the first eleven tracks running an economical 2:58 or less, which makes the final cut, “Wurdalak,” somewhat of an anomaly with a run time of five-and-a-half minutes. It’s all Rob’s phased voice spitting out Lovecraftian lyrics over some spooky music and noises until the final couple of minutes, which turns into a creepy piano coda that sounds right out of THE EXORCIST… somehow a fitting end to the insanity of the last half hour. So, is this the greatest record ever made? Is it the greatest Rob Zombie record ever made? Will it change lives? Will it make the world a better place? The answer to all four questions is, “No.” But, if you ask me if it’s fun, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” And… what more can you ask from a rock and roll record?


ACID KAT ‘ZINE FOURTH ANNIVERSARY SHOW: THE COWBOYS/SODA BOYS/WRAY/THOSE JERKS/TUBBY TOM

(February 13, 2016; FOAM, Saint Louis MO)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Carlos relaxing in the Foam lounge (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I’ve been to Foam exactly twice now; the first time was for an interview with Beth Bombara and, now, for this show. Wray, the evening’s headliners (even though they eventually went on third of five acts), and I arrived at approximately the same time (6:00 PM), due to the venue’s web-site giving the start time as 8:00 PM (or, 8:30 per the Facebook page for ACID KAT ‘ZINE). Around about 10, the sound guy/bartender told someone that it was probably time to start the show; fifteen minutes later, rapper/performance artist (and AK’Z contributor) Tubby Tom began a bizarre set that we’ll discuss shortly. Foam is a very cool place, with a great vibe, friendly staff and really good coffee but, if this is a standard occurrence, they’ve really got to rein in these acts (especially the locals) and keep things tight, on schedule and moving along. So, anyway, having arrived early, I had the pleasure of hanging out with a young Hip-Hop artist named Carlos (see above photo). It’s really cool to see someone so passionate about music… not only his own work, but just music in general; I mean, that’s why I started writing more than twenty years ago… a passion for music. Carlos may or may not have what it takes to get to the next level or to be a huge star but, I certainly heard enough to tell you that I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more from this young man somewhere down the line.

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tubby Tom (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Performing a patently odd style of Hip-Hop over old Disco, Soul and pop records, avant-garde rapper Tubby Tom’s set seemed to be,,, uh,,, divisive. The material proved to be particularly well received by a small contingency of female revelers, while a smaller contingency of patrons merely decided to visit the rest rooms of to step outside for a smoke. Most of the tunes were kinda dorky little ditties about lust, love found and love lost. However, the very short set ended with a very compelling piece; the tale of kidnap, abuse and eventual escape was as urgent and claustrophobic as the scenario implies. By any musical standards, the song, with a distinct Gothic horror feel, was a brilliant use of lyrical imagery and a stifling musical bed to add to the emotional chaos. I gotta admit, I was rather ambivalent about most of Tubby Tom’s set… that final, extended dose of weird definitely upped my estimation of the man’s talents. I have no idea if any of this material is available in any recorded form (or if they are merely spur-of-the-moment fever dreams) but, if they are, they’re well worth checking out.

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Those Jerks (Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony; Nasty Jordan; Terrible Tony) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

According to advance promotions, Freeburg Illinois noisemongers Dem Scientist was scheduled to play their final show as part of this bill; I have no idea what happened but, they were replaced by an apparently thrown-together three-piece who, when I asked their name after the show, decided that Those Jerks worked as well as any… after much Stooges-like (of the Moe, Larry and Curly variety, not the Iggy and the… type) debate. The band also came up with the rather descriptive personal sobriquets of Nasty Jordan, Tornado Tommy and Terrible Tony. Given the tight confines of the Foam stage, the guys set up on the dance floor, with drummer Tommy facing the stage and the others, hanging close to the stage, facing each other. Their music – a combination of barely formed originals and impossibly obscure covers – was a rambling, shambolic skree of fast and loose old school punk; in short, Those Jerks’ set was the virtual epitome of dumb, stupid fun. And, we all know that there just ain’t near enough of that sorta thing in the world today.

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wray (David Brown; Blake Wimberly; David Swatzell) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unbeknownst to me (and, probably, the listening public at large), there is a burgeoning experimental music enclave in the unlikeliest of places: Birmingham, Alabama. Sure, I’d heard of (and listened to) Through the Sparks, Wray and, of course, Communicating Vessels (the label home of both) founder Jeffrey Cain’s group, Remy Zero (not from Birmingham, by the way, but the connection is valid), but… you really don’t envision this type of Eurocentric music to come out of Alabama. Wray plays an unrepentantly jangly, gauzy type of shoegazing elegantia, with throbbing bass, powerful drums, layered, effects-laden guitar and, hovering above it all, wispy, nearly whispered vocals; with a visual presentation (actually, a series of images and visual stimuli created – or chosen – by the band to augment each song) that is as mind-bendingly beautiful as the music, their show is a multimedia tour de force. Bassist and primary lyricist David Brown handled most of the vocals, while guitarist David Swatzell was content to build soaring layers of sonic Nirvana, adding the occasional backing vocal or a short, atmospheric lead with a voice as ethereal as Brown’s. Blake Wimberly followed where the music led, sometimes diverging from any type of standard time-keeping percussion but always bringing his playing back around to the rhythmic thread, all of which contributed to the hypnotic vibe of the song (most of which were from of the band’s latest release, HYPATIA). A highlight of the set was the group’s subtle, amazing cover of Faust’s Krautrock classic, “Jennifer.” Unfortunately, with the late start, rearranged order and other variables, Wray’s set was woefully short (somewhere around thirty minutes), but, without question, the highlight of the evening.

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Soda Boys (Austin Nitsua; Jordy Shearer; Austin Nitsua) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Like Those Jerks, Soda Boys play fast and loud; it’s punk, if tinged with a defiant dose of pop and a distinct Saint Louis flavor. Local scenester and founder of ACID KAT ‘ZINE, Austin Nitsua, is the band’s guiding light, a genial spaz in a Steak ‘n’ Shake paper hat, shouting lyrics over bass-heavy tunes like “Creamy Soda,” “Burgers and Fries” and the coulda-been-a-hit-in-another-era “Soda Girl.” These Boys (especially Nitsua) ran, jumped and rolled around the floor in a punk rock frenzy, obviously enjoying their set as much as the dwindling audience. Unfortunately, the only other band member I was able to identify was drummer Jordy Shearer, who somewhat reminded me of the late, great Tommy Erdelyi, the original skin-beater of the Ramones; as with Shearer, the unidentified guitarist and bassist more than held their own, but this show was unquestionably all about their charismatic (enigmatic?) singer, Austin Nitsua.

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys (Zackery Worcel; Jordan Tarantino; Mark McWhirter) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Cowboys, from Bloomington Indiana, may have been the closest thing to a rock band playing on this Saturday. Their music is equal parts hard rock, psychedelia, punk rock and echo-drenched Rockabilly, delivered with an alcohol-fueled zeal. Celebrating the release of a compilation of the best material from their three cassette-only releases, the group – led by main songwriter and vocalist Keith Harman – charged through a set of tunes that included “Thumbs,” the trippy, late ’60s psychedelic groove of “Aqua Marine Love Machine” and the loopy hillbilly punk of “Cool Beans and Godspeed,” which featured some cool effects from guitarist Mark McWhirter. McWhirter proved himself adept at a variety of styles, including the riff-filled Buddy Holly inspired “Cindy Lou” and a fuzzy, screeching solo on “Creature of the Deep.” The rhythm section of Zackery Worcel on bass (and backing vocals) and drummer Jordan Tarantino were suitably sloppy while somehow managing to stay in the pocket throughout the night. Yeah, the night started off in a somewhat suspect manner, but the folks who stayed around for the finish were treated to a fun – if occasionally disjointed – evening of musical diversity.


REVEREND HORTON HEAT WITH UNKNOWN HINSON/NASHVILLE PUSSY/IGOR AND THE RED ELVISES

(February 6, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

rev_hinson_nashville_lg

What a wonderful, bizarre night this was. Reverend Horton Heat have always been one of my favorite live acts; I vaguely remember seeing Nashville Pussy somewhere about fifteen years ago… they didn’t do a lot for me but, well, things change; for me, there were two wild cards: the enigmatic Unknown Hinson, who did a short set toward the end of the Reverend’s show, and the goofball antics of Igor and the Red Elvises. Let’s start things off – as we always do – at the beginning with…

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The wild and wonderful women who make up the current incarnation of the Red Elvises (shouldn’t that be “Red Elvi?” Just wondering) and their Commissar of Jocularity, Igor Yuzov. With shaking hips and thrusting pelvis eliciting visions very much like that of a certain ’50s teen idol, sporting a head of “Elvoid”-based follicles and dressed in what can only be described as a lame’ jungle print zoot suit, the larger-than-life singer exhorted (extorted?) the crowd to sing along, clap along, dance along, surf along and pretty much any other “along” he could think of as he built a set from the ground up, randomly calling out – Zappa-style – the next tune. At one point, he even cajoled a good portion of the audience to “spontaneously” erupt into a shimmying, snaking conga line. Is there any wonder why this rockin’ teenage combo is “your favorite band?”

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Well, yeah… all of that over-the-top lunacy is as cool as it sounds, but this band is so much more: Musically, Igor and his ever-revolving, evolving group of Elvises play a hip, retro brand of Rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll, laced with enough updated alternative grooves to keep even the most jaded of youngsters’ heads bobbing and butts shaking; the band, especially the rhythm section of Dejah Sandoval and Jasmin Guevara (on bass and drums, respectively), are first rate musicians and, obviously, are having just as much fun as Igor and the fans. Aside from her bass-playing abilities, Sandoval proved improbably adept at remaining upright while sporting stacked boots that would give Gene Simmons a nosebleed, while Guevara was virtually a perpetual motion machine, bobbing and shaking her head like Ringo and pounding her kit like a miniature Bonzo. Keyboard player Dregas Smith showed herself capable of laying down a wicked boogie woogie piano one minute, a fuzzy, grungy garage Farfisa the next; as Igor – more often than not – neglected his guitar, Natalie John took up some of the slack on trumpet and various horned instruments, as well as the occasional funky solo. When Igor did play his chosen instrument, he mixed James Burton-style Rockabilly with Dick Dale or Link Wray-like tremolo-laced Surf guitar. The fact that he sounded like Boris Badanov fronting a band of KGB operatives only added to the man’s charm and mystique on songs like “Closet Disco Dancer,” “Surfing In Siberia,” “I Wanna See You Bellydance” and “She Works For KGB.” The aforementioned conga line took shape at the beginning of “Sad Cowboy Song,” which also featured an incredible (as in, not boring) drum solo from Jasmin; the solo actually started with the other three ladies surrounding the kit and joining in on the percussive fun. I could probably write a novella filled with superlatives about Igor and the Red Elvises, but then I would never get to the rest of the show. Suffice to say that a Red Elvises show is pretty much like watching Frank Zappa’s Mothers eat Madness and then throw up Link Wray; that’s kinda my way of saying that a good time was had by all.

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy, the hard-rocking, four-headed Blues beast may seem – on the surface, at least – an odd choice as tour-mates for the Heat boys, but they’ve been traveling the highways and by-ways together for nearly twenty years. If you’re not familiar with this outfit, they play a drug-fueled, beer-soaked Southern boogie… kinda like early Lynyrd Skynyrd laced with liberal doses of Motorhead, as well as a little bit of Hank, Senior. Up top, I mentioned that the only other time I saw them live, Nashville Pussy really didn’t trip my trigger; a few months back, I saw vocalist Blaine Cartwright play an acoustic set two doors down, at the Demo. Cartwright mentioned that he’d been working on his vocals and, obviously, in that stripped down environment, the melodies and the wickedly funny (and equally perceptive) lyrics weren’t so easily lost in the sheer decibels of a Pussy show and, guess what… somewhere in between that show and this one, I went back and listened to last year’s TEN YEARS OF PUSSY compilation and, well, I like ‘em… I really like ‘em! And, for the record, Blaine’s vocals ARE stronger and clearer than ever, kinda like Uncle Ted or Alice gargling with the ashes of Wolfman Jack and Bon Scott. In fact, with the addition of bassist Bonnie Buitrago a few years back (and, just maybe, the seasoning that comes from almost constant touring), the band has definitely taken on a more cohesive sound since I first saw them, lo, those many years ago.

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Though the band has, indeed, coalesced into a well-oiled machine, the songs maintain their inherently lewd and rude lyrical bent, while each of the four musicians appear ready to go into the crowd for a bit of a throw down at the drop of a black cowboy hat (or, at the very least, to go into the crowd to throw back a drink or two with their rabid fans). Buitrago and drummer Jeremy Thompson laid down a thunderous rumble over which Cartwright and his wife, Ruyter Suys, worked their six-string magic. Don’t think that because Blaine has concentrated on improving his vocals that he’s neglected his guitar playing… he hasn’t; true, Ruyter still does most of the lead work and soloing in her inimitable style, but I believe that Cartwright’s newfound confidence in his voice has allowed him to just let go on guitar. An example of both appeared in the unexpected form of a cover of the classic Marshall Tucker Band ballad, “Can’t You See.” Don’t think for a second, however, that that means this group has mellowed… they are still as cantankerous and debaucherous as ever; classics like “Pillbilly Blues,” “Struttin’ Cock,” “Hate and Whiskey,” “Rub It To Death” and the ever genteel “Go Motherfucker Go” tells you that this is a buncha folks that would’ve made Caligula blush. Well, most of ‘em, anyway; it was kinda funny watching Ruyter, Blaine and Bonnie sweating and thrashing and knocking back shots (or, more often, taking a slug straight from a bottle of Jack) while Jeremy just goes about his job with as little exertion as possible, but still – somehow – managing to sound like two drummers. While Suys’ guitar seemed to occasionally fall out of tune as she throttled the the neck, abused the trings and writhed about the stage, it just didn’t matter; what did matter and what came across from the time Nashville Pussy took the stage was the passion that these people (and their ravenous fans) have for the MUSIC. In a world where electronic beats and auto-tuned voices are becoming the norm, it is refreshing to hear real music played by a band that isn’t afraid to mess up from time to time.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

For over thirty years, guitarist Jim Heath has fronted the band Reverend Horton Heat… to most of his fans, he IS the right Reverend Heat. The band’s sound (a melding of Western Swing, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues, Surf Music, and pretty much any other genre that they can work into the stew) really began to come together when bassist Jimbo Wallace came onboard in 1989; many, including Heath himself, consider Jimbo to be the heart and soul of the group. Spanning two different tours of duty, Scott Churilla is the trio’s longest-tenured drummer, having served from 1994 to 2006 and coming back into the fold in 2012. As you can imagine, these guys have become a well oiled live machine and, this show was certainly no different. Proving their staying power – and the continued popularity of their music – the band ripped into the fairly straight-forward Surf instrumental “Big Sky” coupled with the wild hillbilly honk of “Baddest of the Bad,” both from 1994’s breakthrough album LIQUOR IN THE FRONT, before sending the sold-out crowd into a feeding frenzy with “Psychobilly Freakout,” a fan favorite from their debut album, SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

From there, the boys dipped into the earliest years of Rockabilly with “School of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a 1958 single from fellow Texans Gene Summers and His Rebels; not only are these guys celebrating their own history, but they continue to celebrate their roots, as well as turning their fans on to music they may not have otherwise heard. In most instances, an upright tends to get lost in the mix… not Jimbo‘s; he prompted pops and thrums out of his instrument like no other could. Scott’s excellent stickwork proved why Jim and Jimbo brought him back into the fold after six years away; many of the Reverend’s best albums feature Churilla mounted on the throne (actually, he plays on all but the first three albums and 2009’s LAUGHIN’ AND CRYIN’ WITH THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT). And, of course, what can you say about Jim Heath? He’s never been a flashy guitarist, but he makes what he does seem so easy; it’s the same with his vocals… rock solid from start to finish. With his eyes in perpetual squint-mode (lights, I would guess) and his face either wearing an all-knowing, world-weary smirk or a mile-wide smile, Heath is one of the most unassuming rockers you’ll ever see. The set list looked like the back of a “Best of… ” album, with such fan-pleasing entries as “I Can’t Surf,” “Bales of Cocaine,” the hard-driving Psychobilly paean to Mister Wallace, “Jimbo Song,” as well as Chuck and Johnnie’s “Little Queenie.” Toss in the instant-classic “Zombie Dumb” from the group’s most recent release (2014’s REV) and a few more selections from an impressive catalog and you’ve got a rock ‘n’ roll show to remember. However, the boys were just getting started and… we hadn’t even seen their special guest yet!

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As the houselights came back up after “It’s a Dark Day,” Heath had this to say by way of introduction about Unknown Hinson (the special guest, if you haven’t been following along), “This man scares me to death. Not only because of all that vampire shit, but because of the way he plays guitar… he’s better than any of us could ever hope to be.” Sporting the suit he was buried in (I’m not positive, but I’d bet it cinched in the back) and a pompadour from Hell, the vampiric Hinson lumbered to center stage, still wearing the black gloves so important to his evening wear as he sates his murderous predilection; he removed the gloves only to pick up his guitar. Like the music of the Heat lads, Hinson is sorta all over the place: Everything from surfin’ Gothic Country to metallic hillbilly punk. Hinson’s wide palette included hardcore Western swing, Carl Perkins-style Rockabilly, fuzzed-out slabs of pure psychedelia, old-school Rhythm and Blues and his own twisted take on Southern honk; if you close your eyes just the right kind of tight, you’d swear it was Early Cuyler hisself serenading you. Unknown’s short set-within-a-set included the misogynistic “Silver Platter,” as well as such delicately titled little ditties as “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Husband,” “Fish Camp Woman” and “Your Man Is Gay.” Hinson proved to be as good advertised on guitar, moving from Heavy Metal power chords and manic Country pickin’ to mind-expanding psychedelic soloing and mournful Blues licks. The whole thing was rather like what would happen if the legendary George Jones were to hook up with Brian Warner at a Satanic mixer hosted by the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Minnie Pearl… in short, everything a true music lover hopes for in a live experience.

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As Hinson exited the stage, Jimbo, Scott and Jim charged into the salacious “Let Me Teach You How To Eat” and its thinly veiled lyrical innuendo. One of Heath’s earliest (from THE FULL-CUSTOM GOSPEL SOUNDS OF THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT, released in 1993), heaviest and funniest tunes, “400 Bucks,” led into a sort of gear-head finale, with the divorce settlement classic “Galaxy 500” and the Surfabilly couplet about fast cars and faster women, “Victory Lap” and “Smell of Gasoline,” the latter featuring solos from both Scott and Jimbo. The encore brought Unknown Hinson back to the stage for an extended jam on “The King of the Country Western Troubadours,including a very Trower-esque solo from Unknown. I’ve seen Reverend Horton Heat several times since 1996 or so and they just keep getting better; throwing Hinson into the mix just upped their game even more. I can’t wait to see what they bring next year… I know it’ll be killer.


DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR

(ISO/SONY RECORDS; 2016)

Blackstar

KEVIN RENICK review:

Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

BILL WINER review:

I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”


LISA SAID: FIRST TIME, LONG TIME

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2015)

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Lisa Said kinda exemplifies what I love about this country. She is the embodiment of the classic melting pot: Egyptian and American heritage, living on the outskirts of Washington DC, raised in the Tennessee hills listening to Pop, Soul, Country, Folk, Oldies and Arabic music. FIRST TIME, LONG TIME is her debut EP and it features a delightful mish-mash of all of those musical styles and more; with all of those elements coming to bear, generally all vying for attention within the framework of each of the five tracks, this is epitome of Americana music. Lisa’s Bandcamp page describes the recording process of these songs (some of which as old as ten years) as “fueled by pistachios and bourbon,” trying to find “the sweet spot between early ’70s Folk Rock and North African percussion.” The first track, “Been Around,” begins with some cool Middle Eastern percussion courtesy of Andrew Toy before morphing into a nifty little 1950s rock and roll tune with a kind of strolling piano from Jon Carroll and Lisa’s acoustic guitar and some subtle sitar from Seth Kauffman. The vocals come off as sort of a breathy Country Soul thing. “For Today” is well on its way to being a weird mix of Uncle Tupelo style Americana and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”-era Nancy Sinatra. Carroll adds a solid organ part that somehow would not have sounded out of place on a record by the Band.

Lisa Said (publicity photo)

Lisa Said (publicity photo)

There are more comparisons on the record’s centerpiece (literally and figuratively), the raucous, countrified old time rock and roll of “Hard To Brake,” as Said’s melody line puts me in mind of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – in particular, the “See Me, Feel Me” section – from the Who’s TOMMY. There’s a Rockabilly urgency in Toy’s percussion and Justin Harbin’s bass; Carroll’s piano tinkles along, while Al Sevilla virtually mimics it on the mandolin. “Somebody Someday” is a real-deal Country number with that vague honky-tonk feel from the piano. The only thing missing is the drawl and the twang. Kauffman’s bass highlights the song, while Sevilla’s playing is so understated that you may need a few listens to pick it out of a line-up. One of those moody alternative singer/songwriter thingys closes out the EP. Lisa’s vocals have an Aimee Mann-cum-Sheryl Crow vibe happening on “One Too Many,” with Kauffman adding some echoey Hawaiian sounding guitar in the breaks, as well as some nice solos. The whole song is rather dichotomous with a stripped-down sound that still manages to evoke Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound. While the production tends to be a tad muddy in parts, FIRST TIME, LONG TIME is a fine debut. Lisa is already in the studio working on a follow-up full-length, scheduled for a mid-to-late 2016 release.


OLD 97S/BANDITOS

(October 29, 2015; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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It’s kinda funny how things tend to run in cycles in this business. Earlier this year, it seemed that I was in the Grove more often than not to review a show at either the Demo or Ready Room; then, for a long stretch, most of the action seemed to be taking place at Off Broadway. Now, the last three shows I’ve reviewed have been at the two Grove venues. I have no explanation or theory regarding this phenomenon… I just go where the music is. This night, the music was at the Ready Room, where twenty year veterans Old 97’s and rookie upstarts Banditos presented two very different styles of Americana for a packed house.

Banditos (Stephen Pierce; Mary Beth Richardson; Corey Parsons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Banditos (Stephen Pierce; Mary Beth Richardson; Corey Parsons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Improbably, Nashville’s (by way of Birmingham, Alabama) Banditos have only been a band for about five years and have been touring extensively for only the past three. Why is that improbable? Well, the six member conglomerate exhibit the sound and the easy stage presence of a much more seasoned band. Though the group features three lead singers, the spotlight seemed to shine the brightest on Mary Beth Richardson, whose sultry wail immediately brings to mind Janis Joplin, with just a bit of Tracy Nelson and Dale Krantz-Rossington (the latter’s gravelly purr comes to mind on the more ballady fare). The band’s co-founders, Stephen Pierce and Corey Parsons, are the other two vocalists, both with a buttery smooth style capable of delivering on anything from real-deal Country music to rowdy Rock ‘n’ Roll and rough-edged Southern Soul. Pierce also plays banjo, though if you’re listening and watching him pick, his playing has more of a classic Rock guitar sound; Parsons plays guitar – primarily handling the rhythm but, he also takes the occasional lead or offers up a tasty solo run. Jeffrey Salter, the other guitarist, does most of the heavy lifting, with lead and solo work; the rhythm section of Danny Vines on bass and drummer Randy Wade are rock-solid animals, providing a beefy bottom-end. Before delving into the “meat-and-taters” of their set, it should be duly noted that Banditos are, by far, the wooliest band I have ever seen; there is enough head and facial hair on display to supply toupees and wigs for the entire populace of a balding third-world country.

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Danny Vines) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Banditos (Jeffrey Salter; Randy Wade; Danny Vines) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Musically, the group hit the stage running with “Golden Grease,” one of eight songs on display from their self-titled debut. The tune highlighted the talents of Wade and Vines, as well as some nice guitar from Salter but, when Richardson sang that first note, it was obvious to everyone that she was a force to be reckoned with. According to Parsons, that and a handful of other songs from the evening’s set have been around since nearly the beginning of the band, and those tunes have kind of taken on a life of their own, with the band tweaking them on a nightly basis to keep them interesting for the players; the group, by this point, are working as a well-oiled machine on these numbers (and, in some instances, are straining at the bit to write and record new material so certain tunes can be “retired,” at least temporarily). This night, those tunes included “Long Gone, Anyway,” “Cry Baby Cry” and “Old Ways.” Alongside those original numbers, other highlights were Corey’s cover of an old Waylon Jennings B-side, “Waymore’s Blues”; a rockin’ new tune, sung by Stephen, called “Fun All Night”; Mary Beth hitting all the right notes on a frantic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” Just like their album, Banditos live is a hard animal to nail down; they move and slide in and out of genres as easily as most of us change our clothes. “Cry Baby Cry” has a certain New Orleans flair while “Still Sober (After All These Beers),” despite the obvious Country title, is more of a surf tune with a lot of Dick Dale/Link Wray reverb-style guitar and “Waitin’” wouldn’t have sounded out of place as a June Carter/Johnny Cash duet. Some bands have success almost immediately and are gone almost before anyone even notices; Banditos is one of those groups that – like tonight’s headliners, Old 97’s – looks to have the staying power for a long career.

Old 97's (Rhett Miller; Murry Hammond) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Rhett Miller; Murry Hammond) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amazingly enough, as much as I like their music, this was the first time that I have seen Old 97’s play live. Not that I haven’t had plenty of opportunities, they have played everywhere from Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) to the Pageant; the band loves Saint Louis and Saint Louis definitely loves them. The quartet’s sound still retains a certain NO DEPRESSION-Americana vibe though, with their propensity for a harder-edged punk rock esthetic, they come across more like their contemporaries in Wilco than the shared ancestral linkage of Uncle Tupelo. On this night, they started slow and (purposefully?) a little sloppy with “Give It Time.” All four players seemed somehow distracted, particularly frontman Rhett Miller; they soon found their groove, with bassist Murry Hammond (looking very much like a younger, more dapper Phil Lesh) and drummer Philip Peeples reigning in the wandering guitarists (Miller and lead player, Ken Bethea) and tightening up the arrangements on a set that was long on material from the latest album, MOST MESSED UP, and chock full of fan favorites from the band’s catalog. By the time they got around to the third number, “King of All the World,” the band was firing on all cylinders and Rhett was back to his usual acerbic self. The new tunes – including “Wasted,” “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and “This Is the Ballad” – fared quite well, while the classics – “Big Brown Eyes,” “Niteclub,” “Murder (Or a Heart Attack” and “Over the Cliff” among them – bristled with a renewed energy that, more than once, seemed to border on some type of “angry young man” passion.

Old 97's (Murry Hammond; Philip Peeples) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Murry Hammond; Philip Peeples) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Miller, as expected, supplied the majority of the lead vocals, though Hammond lent his rather world-weary voice to a handful of tunes, including the Country stomp of “West Texas Teardrops” and the tear-drenched ballad, “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue.” As the group moved seamlessly from Country to Alternative Rock to Punk to flat out, steamrolling Rock and Roll, guitarist Bethea had a lead or a solo for every occasion, never faltering in his quest for the perfect guitar part for each song; likewise, Peeples and Hammond laid down the perfect groove, no matter what the style demanded. Rhett, though he continued to seem distracted by something at the back of the room (the monitor mix, mayhap?), tore through his songs like a man possessed, delivering the lyrics in a passionate, matter-of-fact style; he had worked up quite a sweat very early into the set, which seemed to fuel his zeal to give the crowd everything he had to offer. Much of the new material is a little… let’s just call it off-color, shall we? Miller delivered every F-bomb and every mention of booze or allusion to various body parts with a wink and a grin that had the faithful either laughing or singing along. By the time they got to the rollicking set closer, “Most Messed Up,” which ticked off all sorts of offenses, with Miller virtually screaming the refrain, “I am the most messed up mother fucker in this town,” both band and audience were ready for a breather.

Old 97's (Philip Peeples; Ken Bethea) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Philip Peeples; Ken Bethea) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a short break, Rhett returned to the stage for a solo rendition of the ballad “Most In the Summertime” from his latest release, THE TRAVELER; the song has a nice melody lurking behind the humorous, self-deprecating lyrics and you have got to love a guy that manages to work the term “barometric pressure” into a love song. Murry rejoined Miller for a lead vocal on the old-timey Rock and Roll of “Valentine,” which reminded me of a Buddy Holly tune with the Jordanaires singing back-up (and, yeah, I know that there were only two people singing, but the analogy is still valid). Ken and Philip took up their places and the foursome charged into what may be the coolest, funniest sing-along party song of all-time, “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.” After the quick Cowpunk of “Timebomb,” the group left the stage again; with the crowd demanding more, the lights came up, reminding me of the old showbiz axiom, “Always leave ‘em wanting more.”

Old 97's (Ken Bethea; Rhett Miller) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Old 97’s (Ken Bethea; Rhett Miller) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

It is obvious – and rightly so – that Old 97’s own Saint Louis; the band, Rhett Miller in particular, may have been slightly off but, the energy and enthusiasm of the packed Ready Room audience urged them on to a riotous good set. The one-two punch of the headliners and openers, Banditos, made for one of the best nights of flat-out great music to come through the Lou. If you missed this one, you certainly missed a good one.


VOODOO GLOW SKULLS/PHENOMENAUTS/PINATA PROTEST/SNOOTY AND THE RATFINKS

(September 30, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

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It has certainly been a long time since I’ve been to an honest-to-goodness punk rock show and it had been a good ten years since I had seen the campy space-abilly of the Phenomenauts and longer since last I witnessed the full-on Ska-rnage of the fabulous Voodoo Glow Skulls; there was no way I could pass up both on the same bill. Toss in the provocatively named Pinata Protest and last minute additions, Snooty and the Ratfinks, and we had ourselves a punk rock party at the unlikeliest of venues: Off Broadway, a place most recently known as the favored stopping point for straight-ahead rock and roll, roots rock and Americana acts. As the afternoon turned to evening, it was beginning to look like it would be even longer before I would see another honest-to-goodness punk rock show. With doors scheduled to open at seven o’clock, it was a little after five that Pinata Protest pulled up to the place. With nary a Glow Skull or Phenomenaut in sight, the San Antonio band decided to do a little site-seeing; as a couple of their entourage had never been to the Lou before, they were off to observe the wonder that is the Gateway Arch. With time ticking away, the headliners made their appearance roughly a half hour before doors; the Protest returned from their sojourn a short time later, just about the same time the Phenomenauts’ ship pulled into view. Amazingly enough, the bands managed to load in, with the Glow Skulls actually having time for a quick sound check.

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Jared Pitonak) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Jared Pitonak) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As local boys Snooty and the Ratfinks took the stage (fashionably late), it was starting to look like the only people to show (aside from myself and one other photographer) would be their family and friends. Thankfully, others soon began filing in, ready for the madness to come. The Ratfinks played a modified kind of Ska, somewhere between the Specials and the evening’s headliners, with guitarist and primary vocalist Jared Pitonak leading them through a short and randomly sloppy (the good kind of sloppy, though) set, highlighted by the antics and running commentary of bassist AJ Jernigan. Like most bass players from the area, Jernigan has a sound and style distinctive to Saint Louis – a sort of funky fluidity that stands out in any genre.

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Ian Buschmann and Andrew Hopwood; Neill Wolf) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Ian Buschmann and Andrew Hopwood; Neill Wolf) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Found amidst the unique set of tunage was a short blast of snotty punk bluster called “Poppyseed Avenue,” a heavy Blues thing with a wild guitar solo called “Ukulele Blues” and “Meet Me In My Treehouse,” a bizarre sort of surf thing written and sung by trumpeter Andrew Hopwood. As the set progressed, the sound became a bit more… I suppose “experimental” would be the best term to use and, by the last song, I thought that the band had hit on a sound that really suited their talents – kind of a sludgy heaviness, lightened by the use of a horn section (saxophonist Ian Buschmann did stellar work throughout) and a rhythm section (Jernigan and drummer Neill Wolf) with a funky, almost Motown-like vibe. To be honest, I wasn’t initially impressed with what I heard but, as the crowd started to fill out and the band hit a solid groove, I was feeling the music and wouldn’t mind seeing what kind of set the guys could put together with a little more notice.

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The wild card in the night’s deck was definitely Pinata Protest, a Tex-Mex punk band that blends traditional Tejano music with straight forward punk. It was apparent from the first note of “Vato Perron” that these guys were somewhere left of center and that was enough to draw me in (of course, spending time with them before the show, discussing the similarities of San Antonio and Saint Louis, as well as haunted houses and the Lemp family suicides had already made me a fan). Vocalist Alvaro Del Norte is as charismatic onstage as anyone in recent memory; besides his voice, his chosen instrument is the accordion (and, on a tarted up version of the traditional Spanish folk song, “La Cucaracha,” a pocket trumpet). The accordion and Alvaro’s reckless style adds a depth to the music that can only come from the Lone Star State.

Pinata Protest (Marcus Cazares; JJ Martinez) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Marcus Cazares; JJ Martinez) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band performs tunes written in both English and Mexican Spanish, highlighting their origins and heritage. I had no idea what they were singing about (well, I kinda had an idea, but without an actual translation, I was mostly lost) on numbers like “Que Pedo,” “Campesino” and “Cantina” but, that in no way hindered my enjoyment of what was coming from the stage. Songs like “Jackeee,” “El Valiente” and “Life On the Border” touched on the usual punk themes of not fitting in and distrust of the government (any government, really). New guitarist Jose Morales seemed particularly inspired to be playing in the Lou for the first time, blasting power chords or picking more notes per second than should be humanly possible, each more tasty than the last. JJ Martinez on drums and Marcus Cazares on bass kept everything tight, allowing Morales and Del Norte to go off on wild tangents with some wicked solos.

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I’m sure that, like me, many in the crowd were experiencing the Protest for the first time, as many couldn’t decide whether the band was for real or not. The jokesters on stage were only too happy to add to the confusion and, in some cases, the uncomfortable feeling that something… uh… illegal was taking place. Cazares’ Pancho Villa cum Frito Bandito mustache, with his bass slung low, bordered on a caricature that had a couple of folks checking for the clearest route to an exit. Alvaro’s introduction to “DUI” was funny, as was the song, allowing the crowd to loosen up a bit. At one point, I seemed to be the only person camped out right in front of the stage; Del Norte nudged the crowd, exhorting them, “Hey, you can come closer. We’re not here to steal your jobs. We might steal your girlfriends, though!” That seemed to do the trick, as there was soon a nice little bit of activity on the dance floor. I had so much fun with these guys, I cannot wait to see Pinata Protest again; Jose and I have made tentative plans to visit the Lemp Mansion on the band’s next trip through… should be a blast.

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Jimmy Boom; AR7) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Jimmy Boom; AR7) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The intergalactic tour ship Hawking Cruiser and its crew, led by Commander Angel Nova, reached escape velocity, leaving the Phenomenauts Command Center (located at a secret government installation in Earth’s Capital… Oakland, California), landing just down Lemp Avenue from Off Broadway. In their fifteenth year of an ongoing mission to bring “Science and Honor” to the masses, the Commander’s crew has undergone several reassignments, with only Major Jimmy Boom remaining from Nova’s original mission; current Phenomenauts crew members include the robotic Lieutenant AR7, Chief Engineer Atom Bomb and Mission Specialist Ripley Clips, who came on board only six months before this mission to Saint Louis. Unbelievably, more than a few of the people I spoke to before the show and between sets seemed to be oblivious to the Phenomenauts and their mission. By the time Commander Angel and the other crew members took the stage, those false humans had been replaced by the real deal, as those surrounding me were dancing, singing along and interacting with the (mostly) human musicians of the Hawking’s crew.

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Angel Nova; Ripley Clips) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Angel Nova; Ripley Clips) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The rowdy rocketeers kicked off with “I Don’t Care Whether Earth Is the Best (I Love It Anyway),” an anthem in the truest sense of the term, with our Commander barking the lyrics as AR7 shredded his stringed device, daring – nay… demanding – the rest of the crew to match his Stooges-like ferosity. Major Boom, Specialist Clips and Engineer Bomb were more than up to the task; in fact, Jimmy played with an intensity that would have made Marky Ramone or John Bonham blush… I’m just not sure that “subtle” is a word that crops up in discussions with the drummer too often. The band’s set was full of ebb and flow, kinda like those schlocky sci-fi flicks from the 1950s, with a lot of fun moments throughout.

Phenomenauts' Commander Angel Nova seranades the local fauna (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts’ Commander Angel Nova seranades the local fauna (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Highlights included an intense sci-fi thrasher from the new-ish ESCAPE VELOCITY album called “GI581-5,” with Atom taking lead vocals and Nova on “stand-down” bass; a modified sorta doo-wop number called “It’s Only Chemical,” which began with AR7 and Angel alone on stage (the former on keyboard accompaniment and harmony vocals, the latter singing) before Angel went into the crowd for a twice-around-the-room up-close-and-personal. Nova and the rest of the band came back to the stage to end the number in rocking fashion, with Ripley taking on guitar duties; “Rocket Soul” is a straight out punk rocker with a definite Ramones vibe and a very cool Link Wray-like guitar solo; “Broken Robot Jerk” had AR7 on lead vocals as he led the crowd in a spastic new dance craze; “One In Seven Billion Girl” was classic ’50s pop ‘n’ roll, with sci-fi keyboards and guitar and Angel once more in the crowd, sounding very Presley-esque on one knee, serenading the ladies. Aside from the great music, the usual Phenomenauts stage tomfoolery was afoot… just on a slightly smaller scale; a lot of fog machine action, space-age laser looking lights and a lot of dancing from Mission Specialist Clips (she is particularly adept at doing the Carlson… if you don’t know what that is, Google it). One of the primary weapons in the crew’s arsenal is the dreaded atomic-powered toilet paper launcher, wielded tonight by Ripley; unfortunately, the volatile blaster misfired several times before Clips unjammed the firing mechanism, unleashing chaos and mayhem. Bottom line here, kids, is this: If you didn’t have fun during this set, you’re either dead or in serious need of having that large foreign object removed from that orifice you keep behind your front!

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Jorge Casillas; Frank Casillas; Eddie Casillas) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Jorge Casillas; Frank Casillas; Eddie Casillas) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Casillas brothers – Frank on vocals, Eddie on guitar and Jorge on bass – along with drummer AJ Condosta and brass section Dan Albert (trombone) and Mark Bush (trumpet), doing business as Voodoo Glow Skulls, have been at the forefront of the Orange County punk Ska movement for the better part of three decades. What can one possibly say that hasn’t already been said in the past 27 years? So… that’s it; we’re done here.

Voodoo Glow Skulls (AJ Condosta) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (AJ Condosta) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Yeah… not so much! As much as the audience was into Phenomenauts, the Glow Skulls managed to crank the enthusiasm up to eleven, blasting right out of the box, with Frank sporting his now-traditional luchidor headgear for “Voodoo Anthem,” a wicked chunk of hardcore metal Ska. Barely slowing down to suck wind, the band tore through a pair of tunes from THE BAND GEEK MAFIA, “Human Pinata” and “Symptomatic.” The monster set also included “You’re the Problem,” “Land of Misfit Toys,” “Closet Monster,” and their absolutely brilliant cover of the ancient Coasters hit, “Charlie Brown.” Of course, the biggest reaction came when Frank introduced “Fat Randy,” and mayhem ensued from the first note of the raging behemoth about the unwanted party guest who is… well… a raging behemoth. Later in the set, the group dedicated a couple of Spanish language songs to openers Pinata Protest, “El Mas Chingon” and the charging, insane “El Coo Cooi.” The Skulls rarely wore out a song’s welcome, they were in and out, like a precision surgical military strike. Solos, as may be expected were few and far between and short in duration. That doesn’t mean that Eddie, Mark and Dan weren’t on-point musically; Eddie, in particular, delivered sheets of metallic power from the get-go.

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Dan Albert; Frank Casillas; Mark Bush) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Dan Albert; Frank Casillas; Mark Bush) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

It’s particularly hard to pin any one member of the band down for too long, as even the horn players and drummer Condosta were seeming whirling dervishes the entire set. Everyone on stage, as well as everyone on the floor, were drenched after the show. Which brings me to a point about mosh pits – circle pits, especially: I have made comments in more than one review about the Neanderthalic tendencies of most Saint Louis pits, noting that these idjits wouldn’t know a circle pit if they were tossed into one; all they understand is chaos and the attempt to inflict injury on others. These are generally large, gorilla like beings, intent on doing as much damage as possible to those in the crowd wishing to remain on the periphery of the action (the people who just wanna watch the show and not be a part of any action on the floor). I must now applaud the few (but loyally intense) CIRCLE pit dancers, all of whom were considerate to, not only each other but, those of us around them not really wanting to be a part of their celebration. Was I (and others) jostled a few times? Sure… but that’s to be expected. The point is, these dancers were not out to see anyone hurt and, in the end, everyone on the floor had a great time. And, that’s the feeling that you should have when you leave a Voodoo Glow Skulls show… “Wow! I really had fun tonight!” Mission accomplished, boys!