my pain: Mike Watt at Valentines.. Photo
by Joe Putrock
Mike Watt and the Secondmen, Cobre Verde
More faddish musical acts may consistently pass us by, but
in Albany we can count on Mike Watt. The former Minuteman
has made Valentine’s a standard stop on his frequent cross-country
tours; these days, it seems, every equinox heralds the announcement
of a new Mike Watt appearance. Dormant Albany music fans who
don’t seem to get out much the rest of the year suddenly surface
at his shows—and with good reason. Watt may be always on the
road, sporting the same flannel and Levi’s, but his tours
are distinct and conceptual. With each tour, Watt unveils
a new confluence of players, songs and ideas.
At Valentine’s last Tuesday, Watt presented the latest chapter
in his ongoing musical saga: the Our Oars Become Wings Tour.
Watt’s current, atypical bass-organ-drums lineup, the Secondmen,
featured Pete Mazich on organ and Jerry Trebotic (who was
a mainstay of Watt gigs last year) on drums. They debuted
songs from Watt’s forthcoming, autobiographical album The
Secondman’s Middle Stand, which charts the bassist’s
recovery from a life-threatening illness a few years ago.
Watt has described the album, due out next fall, as a loose
parallel of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, likening
his getting sick to the “inferno.”
Accordingly, the first three songs of the Valentine’s show
found Watt channeling the darkest moments of his illness.
The bleak, avant-jazz/ funk-inflected “Boilin’ Blazes,” “Puke
to High Heaven” and “Bursted Man” were charged with a greater
intensity than Watt evidenced in any of his previous post-illness
Albany shows. Locked into his bass groove, swept up in a fevered
sort of symbiosis with the flailing Trebotic, Watt seemed—for
the first time in a long while—to be completely caught up
in the moment. Possessed, in fact. As he unfurled bits of
self- referential spoken word over Mazich’s church organ dirge,
Watt exposed feelings of helplessness and mortality related
to his near-death experience: “Man tied to wheel/Wheel turning,”
After the trilogy of illness-themed songs, the set retained
its level of jaw-dropping inspiration. An overcome Watt slammed
his front lip against the microphone on a heated “Red and
the Black,” during which he blew out a speaker. “I’m gonna
try to blow up all of them with this one,” he said before
an unholy version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.”
Dripping with sweat, Watt punctuated Lou Reed’s obscene junkie-whore
lyrics with a cry of “Coltrane!” as he flailed away furiously
on his bass—behind his head, no less. Watt then caught his
heaving breath on a hushed “Chinese Fire Drill,” which drew
hoots from the crowd. In a fitting climax to the impassioned
show, Watt willfully lost his mind and senses during an encore
of the Stooges’ “Little Doll.” As the transfixed crowd stood
dead silent, Watt began to shake, moan and cry, calling out
“little doll” over and over.
Watt’s set was preceded by an unexpected yet thoroughly welcome
surprise: an unannounced performance by Cleveland’s Cobre
Verde. Although they play the sort of hip-shaking, art-damaged
punk rock that has made the Strokes famous lately (and they’ve
done so a lot longer), Cobre Verde are perhaps a bit too dark,
a bit too rocking, and a little too ugly for the masses. (Of
course, if you’re like me, those qualities only make them
more appealing.) As the band churned out guitar-heavy, vaguely
misanthropic songs like “One Step Away From Myself” and “Catalogue,”
gutter-throated singer John Petkovic spastically flounced
around the stage, clapped his hands and slapped his own ass
with a tambourine. All told, a great time.
Eddie’s Father’s Punk
Winners, May 15
The Dead Kennedys without Jello Biafra? You might wonder,
wouldn’t that be like the Sex Pistols sans Johnny Rotten?
Biafra’s spastic, bile-soaked voice is almost indescribably
repugnant, even more repellent than his sarcastic, contemptuous
lyrics. It’s like the voice of Satan in a very low-budget
1960s horror flick. Simply put, it’s a big part of what makes
him compelling. Yet, the Dead Kennedys have hardly missed
a beat after leaving their litigious former front man behind
(Biafra sued, unsuccessfully, to prevent the group’s reunion).
To finish the Sex Pistols analogy, while the musically shaky
Pistols were unimaginable without Johnny Rotten (who was,
after all, truly one of the greatest rock singers) the Dead
Kennedys are such ferocious players that they get along without
Biafra very well. Thunderous drummer D.H. Peligro, bassist
Klaus Flouride and surf ’n’ snarl guitarist East Bay Ray didn’t
seem to have lost much, either in their musicianship or commitment.
No one was just cashing a check.
To be sure, Biafra’s replacement, Brandon Cruz (of punk band
Dr. Know, and TV’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father),
is nowhere near as fearsome. But, whether hanging from the
rafters, stage diving into the seething pit, or singing the
songs that made the DKs infamous, Cruz gave a performance
that ranged from respectable to inspired.
That said, it’s a peculiar thing when a punk show doubles
as an oldies show. Snoop Doggy Dogg’s words from the stage
on his last tour came to mind: “Put your middle finger in
the air, and let’s go down memory lane.” Still, the Dead Kennedys’
songbook holds up very well: “Kill the Poor,” “Too Drunk to
Fuck,” “California Über Alles” and covers of “Rawhide” and
“Viva Las Vegas.” Given the fact that we have another Bush
in the White House, and that right-wing rhetoric is again
in fashion, the political songs of the Reagan ’80s are timely
again. The mostly very young audience, who weren’t even a
gleam in their parents’ eyes when “Holiday in Cambodia” discomfited
the rock mainstream, loved the band.
Opening act the Generators proclaimed, “We came all the way
from L.A. to play for you Mohawk-wearing motherfuckers,” but,
alas for the band, few—with or without Mohawks—were drawn
in by the band’s Clash-style guitar attack. Though songs like
“Hanoi ’68” promised firepower, the crowd remained unmoved,
the pit action largely nonexistent. The Generators kept trying,
to little avail, and were left to plaintively ask the audience,
“Are you all sedated?”
If they were, the six-piece River City Rebels shocked them
awake. The group’s frantic combination of punk and ska, showcasing
trombone and tenor sax players right there in the mix with
the guitars, put folks in the mood to dive and surf. The Rebels
came on like working-class heroes with an aggressive stage
attitude that was just what people were waiting for.
Local heroes Nogoodnix opened the festivities with their growling,
hook-filled, Irish-inflected punk. They were very happy to
be there, and their joy was shared by the crowd.
They Might Be Giants
Museum of Contemporary Art, May 11
They Might Be Giants left the world of major labels behind
several years ago (with an excellent album, Factory Showroom,
being a sad casualty, ignored by Elektra). The two Johns,
Linnell and Flansburgh, have been working as TMBG for 20 years
now, first as a duo and for the past decade as a full band.
From the outset they have always controlled nearly every aspect
of their presentation, so it comes as no surprise that after
parting ways with a large corporation they have gone on to
new and different successes.
Their appearance at MASS MoCA last Saturday was attended by
a healthy mix of college students, middle-aged grayhairs and
parents with children (the band’s theme song for the hit television
show Malcolm in the Middle has brought them a new generation
of fans). A new album, due next month, is called No!
and is specifically a children’s album—which is not to say
it’s not for their adult fan base as well, as a good portion
of their material (fact: there have been 300 TMBG songs released
over the years) has tended toward the child-friendly.
The band’s live shows have always had a visceral element that
has made them worthy and separate entities from their recordings.
During their duo years, they were a sort of surrealist cabaret;
then, after expanding in number and volume, they became gloriously
loud and heartwarmingly anthemic. (A subtle measure of their
success could be seen in the wireless in-ear monitors and
cordless microphones, and heard in the warm and rich mix they
achieved in the rather cavernous room.)
Wise and congenial hosts, they mixed a few new songs in with
many popular favorites. “You’re Not the Boss of Me” (a fine,
if slight, song that is perfect in its spot as a TV theme)
came roaring out mid-set. The show’s emotional core was the
performance of “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” from 1990’s Flood.
The song’s introductory measures alerted the room to this
wonderful number, and as the drums kicked in, the room became
one bobbing sea, as band and audience alike were jumping up
and down. Different than dancing, which links movements to
a song’s rhythmic foundation, this jumping was pure gusto,
with participants aiming for height rather than choreographic
precision. Like the show as a whole, it was friendly and powerful—a
fine combination indeed.