4th Street, Jan. 19
The longer a band’s career is, the more entry points there
are along the way. If someone started listening to the Beatles
with the White Album, or to Miles Davis with In a Silent
Way, it doesn’t make their connection to those artists
any less resonant than for fans who got on board at the start
of the journeys. There end up being different camps, but it
tends to be the newest recruits who embrace the latest work.
The Fleshtones have been around for more than 30 years. Far
from being well-versed in their output, I have known of only
a few songs from over the decades; until I got my hands on
their three latest CDs last week, I’ve never had any of their
albums, and Saturday’s show in Troy was the first time I saw
This came to pass because I was sent the recent book about
the band, Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, right
before we left on a family trip to Paris. I brought it along,
reading it on the flight over and then during our stay. One
needn’t be familiar with the band to be swept up in their
saga, and it was made all the more resonant because of the
band’s fondness for Paris. Feeling like I wanted more, I went
to their Web site and discovered that the NYC-based band were
booked to play in Troy a week after our return home.
I discovered that Positively 4th Street is a favorite venue
of the Fleshtones. The 60 or 70 people on hand reflected the
band’s longevity with a mix of gray-haired hipsters, college-aged
rockers, and middle-aged revelers. The crowd was sufficiently
varied that I didn’t feel like I stepped into a private party.
No secret handshake is necessary for entering the Fleshtones’
realm; you just have to show up.
It was a night devoted to “garage bands” (a term I’ll address
shortly), and the Fleshtones closed the night with an hourlong
set. They carried no crew with them; it was just the four
band members. I watched drummer (and Troy native) Bill Milhizer
adjust cymbal heights and trap-set-component placements before
the set, tweaking things by inches, tuning his floor tom.
The brief bursts of drumming he did to measure and test the
variables revealed a drummer with deep technical skills. The
band’s good-natured wallop, pummel and swing may call on only
a fraction of what Milhizer can do, but it’s that invisible
part, the skills held in check, that make for the supple engine
that he is. Milhizer plays with an ease born of deeper knowledge.
This is all worth noting, because you cannot have a great
band without a great drummer.
Now, about that term, “garage band.” 1960s bands such as the
Count Five, the Music Machine, and the Kingsmen have come
to epitomize the raw bands that flourished regionally before
the music became codified as a market presence. The term was
applied after the fact, in the ’70s, and was given further
credence by the Nuggets compilation. This led to a
wave of bands who continue to this day, devoted to generally
obscure bands. Those ’60s bands were listening to a varied
swath of music, from soul to surf, folk protest to feedback-laced
psychedelia. Most of the contemporary groups tend to refer
directly back to the ’60s garage bands, which leads to music
that has a surface sheen but no depth. A corollary would be
rockabilly-revival bands who don’t reference the jump blues,
country, and Texas swing that led to the genre, resulting
in such museum-clean, soulless endeavors as the Stray Cats.
However, the Fleshtones are like those ’60s bands, finding
their way early on via songs by such artists as Thee Midniters,
Kid Thomas, and Rosco Gordon.
When a friend who’s a longtime fan heard I was going to see
the Fleshtones for the first time, he named three songs he
was sure they’d play, but they didn’t play any of them. Calling
this the first stop of their world tour to promote their new
album, Take a Good Look, the band instead drew heavily
from that album, as well as other fairly recent releases.
Nobody seemed disappointed by any omissions, the prevailing
mood being, “Fleshtones, do your stuff!”
The unglamorous stage and the club’s intimate setting made
Positively 4th Street feel like the center of the universe;
the rest of the world disappeared. Streng and Fox, with their
cordless hookups, would march about through the audience,
standing on tables, often leaving Milhizer alone onstage,
drumming away. Other than Streng’s alligator shoes, sparkly
guitar and mod hat, the band didn’t look much different from
the audience, and that served to underscore their magic. Mere
mortals, using instruments available to anyone, but in their
hands, and with their voices, something alluring and powerful
happened. Which is why, in the 32 years of an uphill struggle,
the Fleshtones persevere. They have no choice. They have the
power, and they are still waiting for more of the world to