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Get your mix: the Downbeat 5 at Artie’s Lansingburgh Station. Photo by Eileen Clynes

Guilt Is Good
By John Rodat

The Downbeat 5, the Erotics
Artie’s Lansingburgh Station, July 26

I recently had a conversa- tion with some friends in which we ’fessed up to our favorite music that we’re embarrassed to love, our guilty pleasures: Mötley Crüe, Duran Duran, Morris Day and the Time, Billy Joel, Asia, N’ Sync, etc.—everybody coughed up a dirty little secret. All except for one guy, that is. One guy wouldn’t admit to any guilty pleasures, claiming that there was no guilt in pleasure. You know, you like the music that you like and that’s it. It’s an interesting argument, but, I suspect, a little disingenuous. And more to the point, it’s counterproductive. Maybe this is a little puritan pervert of me, but I think guilt increases the pleasure of certain activities.

The Erotics, for example. Listen, accuse me of being a Mortimer J. Adler-style neocon crank, but postmodern pop-culture inclusivism notwithstanding, loving a song with the chorus “Slip it in my ass” should provoke pangs of guilt. Slight pangs, perhaps, but pangs. Or a love song dedicated to Helen Keller—c’mon. How do you feel good about that? But the shit is so funny. Not smart and funny, mind you. Not even original and funny. It’s funny because you know that it’s not right. Because you know that “Slip It in My Ass” is not—despite the bartender’s quip—a Jean Genet song. Because you know that a deaf, mute girlfriend isn’t the perfect girlfriend by virtue of her inability to communicate. Because you know you shouldn’t be thinking it, much less singing it. The slight guilt attendant to violating inherited social mores for no better reason than making—or repeating—a joke is exactly what gives the whole mess its force.

And, of course, it helps that the Erotics play the shit out of their songs. It’s Sex Pistols meets Guns N’ Roses meets Dead Boys meets the Stray Cats meets Andrew “Dice” Clay. It’s a wicked mix of harsh, first-wave punk chordal simplicity, arena-rocsk soloing (the lead guitarist had Slash down to a tee, from the full tone to the nearly vertical position of the Les Paul during leads to the back-pocket bandana), melodically loping rockabilly bass and no-frills drumming. They were tight, and sonically sure—even dealing with a sketchy P.A., they managed to turn out a textured performance of a music that is all too frequently applied as undifferentiated mush.

Headliners the Downbeat 5 had a little less luck, sadly. They were borrowing that same P.A., and couldn’t seem to get it to do quite what they wanted—or needed—it to do. Jen Rassler’s snarly punky lead vocals could be heard, but only because she was shouting loud enough to project into the club. Her guitar, too, was mostly lost, and the bassist’s background vocals were merely visible. Lead guitarist JJ Rassler (ex-DMZ, and the Queers) filled the room more than adequately with sharp, surf-inflected leads, but lacking the better portion of the rest of his band, it made little sense to do so. I can only guess that the band had similar difficulty hearing themselves, because while both the guitar and drums were well-played, they didn’t seem to be working together on the same song. All a shame, really, because what filtered through the technical difficulties had promise: The performance of the Queers’ “Number One,” for example, and the encore rendition of Dee Dee Ramone’s “Victim of Society”—the familiarity of which helped overcome the troublesome mix—sounded just fine.

Children of the Horn

Deep Banana Blackout, Strangefolk
Northern Lights, July 23

A while back, someone told me that Deep Banana Blackout were yet another in a seemingly endless barrage of “jam bands” from the Northeast, another boxcar on the granola train hurtling along endlessly down the tracks forged and laid by the blood, sweat and tears of the Grateful Dead. It’s a good thing I’m not as impressionable as I used to be (OK, in reality my friends are actually sometimes just bloody liars), because, goddamn, was I in for a pleasant surprise. DBB supplied one of the most airtight, professional sets of contemporary music this karaoke metalhead has ever witnessed. From the moment they got under the lights, the eight-member troupe floored me with their nonchalant delivery of such a dirty brass payload, and easily lured anyone unfamiliar with them into a stark understanding of the warmth of such coherent, deliberate, good-time fare.

Touring in support of the live and scorching disc Release the Grease on Butch Truck’s Frying Frog label, DBB members are no magnet-school dropouts by any stretch, having studied with various jazz and blues greats at Berklee College, Interlochen Academy for the Arts, Stony Brook and other renowned schools. So of course, they can jam—gems like the heart-stopping “Fire It Up” demonstrate the outfit’s well-honed improvisational skills—but most of their punch lies in the swanky, layered ambience of the brass. All this coupled with a capability to strike a very deliberate compromise within diverse influences, be it funk, jazz, Latin, soul or just plain tongue-dangling guitar rock. With enormous horns fueled by relentless percussion, the tunes ranged from the lush and vibrant luminescence of “Universal Song” and “God Made Me Funky” to the unyielding protocol of “Stand Up,” each missive spiraling inward toward a common purpose that is so easy to overlook—the song, not the solo.

Not that there was any lack of showboating. Singer-saxophonist-flautist Hope Clayburn blew the suburban nightclub wide open with sassy, go-girl vocals and leapin’ lizards footwork, taking time in between to admonish the few in the front who dared spark a Camel in the sphere of her testifyin’ dreamscape. But hell, every one of ’em can sing, and that’s no small thing. Trombonist Bryan Smith delivered a solemn rendition of Steely Dan’s highbrow “Green Earrings,” and weird-ass axman James “Fuzz” Sangiovanni led the stomp through James Brown’s “Get up Offa That Thing.” DBB are all about quality versions of old standards and fascinating original material. Dinner, dessert and a Swedish massage.

Burlington’s Strangefolk filled the opening slot with my greatest fear, the aforementioned attack of the 20-minute jams. Even assuming an ability to set aside a genuine distaste for the stuff, I kept waiting for dynamics, for highs and lows that never happened, for some semblance of direction. While articulate and adroit with the power tools (especially keyboardist Don Scott, who studiously tickled the ivories for the swooning hempsters without so much as once peering into the crowd), Strangefolk offered little in the breath-of-fresh-air department, waxing all-too-familiar hooks into all-too-familiar structures. If you own any more than four volumes of Dick’s Picks, you could be this band’s drummer, and believe me, no slight intended to the fella. Curiously, many left after their set, apparently confident that it doesn’t really get any better than this.

Suckers.

—Bill Ketzer

Still Genius After All These Years

Ray Charles
Calvin Theatre, Northampton, Mass., July 26

Ray Charles is a legend. He’s also one of those rare legends actually beloved by audiences. How many artists get a standing ovation just for showing up? That’s what happened Friday night. Even after a delay caused by a fire alarm, in which the whole theater had to empty out before the opening act took the stage, the crowd’s goodwill could not be dampened.

Charles is no kid, and it took a few songs for his voice to warm up. In fact, he looked tired and just a bit frail when he was led onto the stage. He may have rasped his way through “Busted” and “Georgia on My Mind,” but by the time he sang his fourth number, “The Good Life,” Charles was in fine form.

“The Good Life,” one of Tony Bennett’s signature tunes, was recast as a swinging, jazzy romp. This was just the first inspired jazz reinterpretation of a well-known song in Charles’ repertoire. Others included the pop standard “Almost Like Being in Love,” and the 1960s Top 40 hit “Hey Girl.” The bluesy ballad “Just for a Thrill,” in which Charles really came into his own, gave the band a chance to let loose. Leading the band with his electric-piano improvisations, and teasing the audience with his witty vocal embellishments, Charles was having a wonderful time.

This jazz-oriented half of the show concluded with a showstopping version of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” Charles has had this in his set list for years, but, unlike “Georgia on My Mind,” he still seems interested in it.

Charles was joined by the Raylettes for the second half of his set, and it was time for the R&B- and country-flavored hits: “Set Me Free,” “Smack Dab in the Middle,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The Raylettes had their feature number, “This Time I’ll be the Fool,” and the closer, of course, was “What’d I Say”—and the R&B classic has lost none of its kick.

Charles has a terrific big band. Led by reed man Al Jackson, they opened the concert with a trio of jazz instrumentals, including Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” The arrangements left plenty of room for soloing, and players from every section (except, oddly, the trombones) had a chance to step to the front of the stage and show their skill.

Singer and guitarist Guy Davis, accompanied by bassist Mark Murphy, warmed up the crowd with a varied set of acoustic blues. Davis mixed cornball humor with straightforward blues standards by Robert Johnson and Sleepy John Estes, but it was his cover of Bob Dylan’s unsentimental “Sweetheart Like You” that really registered.

—Shawn Stone

Metal Health

Judas Priest
Northern Lights, July 27

The English don’t know how to make breakfast, but boy, can they ever produce some backbreaking heavy metal. Especially bands from the Black Country hills of Birmingham—it must have something to do with desperation, born out of the poverty of industry. Or from eating too much Spotted Dick with raisins.

Either way, the Judas Priest show was packed waaaaaay beyond capacity, with shirtless, bemulleted, mustachioed Hessians, arms joined in prayer, incessantly chanting “Priest! Priest! Priest! Priest!” to summon this latest incantation of the original men in black. Many squinted like mice toward the bright lighting pots stretched in every possible direction, a sure sign that, until tonight, some have not left their parents’ garage since senior year in ’86, after successfully fighting their old man for the last jug of 10W-40. When the intro tape ran, every square inch of the dance floor instantly was coated in a thick sheen of Budweiser, and Priest just kind of appeared, as they are wont to do, grinding into the 4/4 carpetbomber “Bloodsuckers” from their latest CD, Demolition. Back on tour after an extensive 1998 jaunt, the lads can still deliver the goods, still hitting a new city almost every day as if they were in their 20s.

There is more than nostalgia here. The drunken mobs knew the words to all the new stuff too, verbatim, with spittle, but JP kept the recent catalogue to a bare minimum to purvey all the popular kegland classics we know and love—but there were pleasant surprises. I was floored to hear “Devil’s Child,” “The Sentinel,” and sweet apocrypha, even “Exciter,” which caused even the most conservative, balding metal-geeks at the bar to zealously race to the front and proclaim their love and steadfast dedication. We even got the semi-hollow-body treatment for a bona-fide Joan Baez version of “Diamonds and Rust.” Loud, clean and timeless, the twin guitar sorties of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton transcended the appeal of nu-metal down-tuning and harked back to the days when “heavy” wasn’t a given in the arena-rock world. Bassman Ian Hill remains an old god—it’s as if his roadie marks out his boot position with duct tape prior to showtime, and he plants himself there like a the guardian of all that is dark, evil and full of Newcastle Brown Ale.

Finally, if there was any nagging sentiment that Priest had lost a crucial element of their supremacy without almighty hellion Rob Halford at the helm, such reservations surely were dispersed by the humble performance of young American Tim “Ripper” Owens. A man of few words, the young brute handily tackled the difficult “Painkiller,” and even that most infamous of nut busters, “Victim of Changes.” You really couldn’t blame Owens, originally from an Akron-based Priest tribute band, as he almost inadvertently assumed the total Halford persona, giving us the two-step air-punches and the Pattonesque pointing beyond the masses to some distant locale to be infiltrated and destroyed.

Here is love, applause . . . warfare! The only regrets: Downing and Tipton have never sounded the same after abandoning the almighty Gibson company in the mid-’80s for the overprocessed hum of Hamer axes. Probably the quality of the endorsement, probably more predictable tuning, but their sound changed forever on that fateful day. The other issue: They played “Turbo Lover.” It sucked then, it sucks now. Otherwise, godspeed, gentleman.

—B.K.


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