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