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Feel my pain: Mike Watt at Valentine’s.. Photo by Joe Putrock

Blaze of Glory
By Kirsten Ferguson

Mike Watt and the Secondmen, Cobre Verde
Valentine’s, May 14

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,” he cried.

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.

Not Eddie’s Father’s Punk

Dead Kennedys
Saratoga 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.

—Shawn Stone

Their Own Bosses

They Might Be Giants
Massachusetts 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.

—David Greenberger


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