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Marching On

By David Greenberger

The Fleshtones

Positively 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 them.

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 find out.

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