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For those who love the rock, we salute you: the Supersuckers at Valentine’s. Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Where There’s Smokin’ Rock There’s Fire
By Bill Ketzer

Valentine’s, Nov. 7

Some of the greatest bands in the world are those whose heritage is unassailable. By that I mean that the cultural mysticism behind the band’s place of origin, born from terrain, economy and taste, is completely inseparable from their music. The only way to make a band and their music any more proximal is to actually power through the region that makes the music what it is, preferably in a convertible, while listening to the music that makes the region what it is. Thankfully, for those who can’t afford a vacation, the Supersuckers make this ethnography portable: Their muscular, riff-swollen assault and gunslinging bluster evokes, from anywhere on the planet, the barren badlands of the Southwest, like some kind of satanic sermon on the mount.

At their show last Friday at Valentine’s, the opening blows of “Rock-N-Roll Records (Ain’t Selling This Year)” and “Rock Your Ass” came ripping at lights-out from a smoking crack in the deep dark whatever, and from there you couldn’t have turned off the hit machine with a landmine. The triple-Gibson deluge (bassist Eddie Spaghetti remains loyal to his Les Paul 4-stringer) is simply too much to bear. Guitarists Ron Heathman and Dan “Thunder” Bolton drenched the crowd with instant classics, drawn mainly from their latest CD Motherfuckers Be Trippin’ and 1999’s The Evil Powers of Rock ’N’ Roll. These guys have this Pale Rider-template thing going on, which makes each song, whether it be the waltz-stomp “Dirt Road, Dead Ends and Dust” or the blistering “Goodbye,” a pure study in true grit. They inspire a thirst for history, for creation, ignited by the natural human desire to be there at the beginning, to bear witness.

Spaghetti and tribe were attentive to this need by thoughtfully delivering frothing versions of earlier stuff too, like the smoking “Luck” and the almost vaudevillian “My Victim,” along with longtime live standards “Creepy Jackalope Eye” and “Born With a Tail.” I looked around at the ragtag assembly of 200 some-odd patrons and wondered what it takes to inspire them beyond just kind of nodding their heads in approval. I was freaking sweating liquor and I haven’t had a drink in five years. Has the obsession with instant messaging, blogs and bum neutered them beyond capacity for true rock love? Have the soundtracks to the latent pornography of MTV reality shows erased the hunger for something more formidable than the Strokes? What does it take? Earthquake? A structure fire?

Suddenly, as if in answer to my lament and in natural deference to the pure evil being wrought forth onstage by the men in black (except new drummer Mike “Murderburger” Musberger, who was resplendent in meat-smock white), the entire speaker column at stage right began to burn. Nicely. Never missing a note, the band gathered together and looked on in curiosity as security attempted to thwart a possible Great White debacle. I immediately thought to myself that being burnt to ash with the last notes of “I Want the Drugs” ringing in my ears would be far more preferable than death by overwhelming subdural hematoma in the shower, so, on with the show, I guessed. And most people didn’t notice anyway—see what I mean?

There were other problems as well, but these are things bands have little control over. The report from the bar was that low-frequency feedback kept undulating in that general direction. As my friend Dano from the delMars put it, “a pneumatic winch ripping my eardrums forward through my temples.” He said it like it was a bad thing.

But see, above and beyond spitting in the face of technical adversity, it is the language of the Supersuckers, the conceit and heedlessness of your “Fisticuffs” and your “Bubblegum and Beer” that remains both familiar and ethereal, even though most never ask what it all really means. Instead, we only tend to hear the way the backbeat automatically uses your swingin’ ass to knock the person next to you clean into the merch booth. Even to those few who actually seek out true meaning, it often comes across as damn cool fiction (“Gonna stay out late ’till my ass is draggin’/This is gonna be great, gonna come home braggin’/Gone gamblin’!”), but highly impractical in the real world.

Yet at full live volume, one can get beneath the surface of growing up in Tucson, of playing through Seattle’s salad days, where it cannot be dismissed so lightly because it is written in their eyes. It pokes a sore spot, with all the superficial fluff and padding protecting us from the soreness of life, from the fact that despite our lofty American standards, most of us are in debt and had better get used to it. The Supersuckers scrape off such futile salve and heal us with our own glory, our reality, our mortality. Toss in Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” and I’m doing the anti-gravity dance in a place where anxiety is forbidden, covetousness is corrected and a broken sternum, well, that’s all right. Amen.

Funny: Weird, or Funny: Ha Ha?

Badly Drawn Boy, Leona Naess
The Egg, Nov. 4

Bruce Springsteen opened up for Badly Drawn Boy, nee Damon Gough, last Tuesday night at the Egg. That is, Gough—who freely admits his Boss obsession—prefaced his show at the venue’s intimate Swyer Theatre by blaring Springsteen’s early classic “The Angel” to the crowd. The rumpled British singer, dressed in iron-on Adidas tee, brown military jacket, faded jeans and red knit beanie, stood to the side of the stage with his plastic drink cup raised in salute. “That could have backfired,” Gough joked as the song ended and he took the stage, admitting perhaps that his own intensely personal musings and quiet melodies are no match, toe-to-toe, for Springsteen’s blue-collar roof-raisers.

In some ways, Gough shared the populist dedication of Springsteen: In accordance with his idol’s iron-man sets, Gough probably would have played for three hours if allowed (he cited a venue curfew as the reason he quit after two-plus hours). Performing alone with an acoustic guitar before being joined onstage by his three-piece band, Gough also spent much of his set disregarding the usual barriers between audience and performer. He passed around photos of his kids like he was at a family picnic; asked the crowd to write down potential titles for an unreleased instrumental track; climbed to the top of the theater stairs and crooned next to audience members; and relayed self-revealing stories about fatherhood or pals who died recently under “weird circumstances” (including the late songwriter Elliott Smith). “I feel like I’m on VH1 storytellers,” Gough quipped before playing “Holy Grail,” a new piano-driven tune that was inspired by his grandfather who died in war.

His distractibility seeming almost pathological at times, Gough’s jokes, fuck-ups and rambling monologues—cast amid flashes of brilliant songwriting—could either have been annoying or charming. I, for one, felt the latter: It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the gifted songwriter has such wicked humor in him. I suspect much of the crowd felt the same. “You’ve all been on weed or something, haven’t you?” Gough asked in his lilted British accent when the crowd tittered after another of his cracks.

Perhaps the guy is incapable of being serious in person, but in song his most touching numbers were also among the most solemn: the wistful lost love of “Magic in the Air” (“We slept on leaves on my drive, all night”) and the heartbreak of “You Were Right,” which elegized a string of deceased musical heroes from Joe Strummer and Marc Bolan to Kurt Cobain. “Yeah, that’s a good song—I think anyway,” Gough muttered after. He was right. With his band behind him, Gough ended the show with a countrified, barroom version of “Pissing in the Wind,” dedicating the closer to Springsteen—his “favorite man on the planet.” He left the stage clutching the photos of his kids.

Solo acoustic performer Leona Naess opened the show. Her deep, cigarette-stained voice had character; her personality was charmingly without pretense. Too bad her songs were so run-of-the-mill romantic. Rumored to be the ex-fiancée of alt-country celeb Ryan Adams, Naess had comically vengeful tour T-shirts (reading “My X is a wanker”) on sale in the lobby.

—Kirsten Ferguson

What’s in a Name?

Magnolia Electric Co. (Songs: Ohia), knotworking, Katie Haverly
Valentines, Nov. 4

Jason Molina has recorded songs under a couple of monikers since the mid-’90s, but Songs: Ohia is his most consistent and well-known nom de plume. So, of course, in a move straight out of the Will Oldham songbook, he has introduced a new name, Magnolia Electric Co., for his current touring incarnation and as the title for his most recent album (produced by Steve Albini, who has been behind records by the Pixies, Nirvana and P.J. Harvey).

Molina is a little guy with a bushy, Bert-like monobrow that is ratcheted down on his forehead in a perpetual look of concern as he sings. He opened his set at Valentine’s last week in solo mode, strumming his accompanying electric guitar and offering hauntingly poetical landscapes that often came off like Palace delivered by Gordon Lightfoot (but with enough stirring wordplay to top both). This was sometimes gorgeous—but more often intimidatingly downtempo—fare, and those without the stoner’s patience for “moments” amid the narcotic gauze could be seen drifting back and forth to the bar.

After approximately an eon of this, touring mate Jennie Benford (of hip bluegrassers Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops), a beguiling, tiny woman with huge, expressive eyes and an Emmylou Harris-like quaver, came out for a spin through some strong rustic fare, soon to be joined by Molina on some Gram-and-Emmylou-on-’ludes-style harmonizing that was rounded out by mournful peals of trumpet and lap steel.

It was the full band that really succeeded on this eve, though. With all seven members on stage, the songs swelled into big searing dirges. “Steve Albini’s Blues” was a particular highlight, with Molina’s striking lyrics often rising out of the penetrating fog (“On the bridge out of Hammond, see them brake lights burnin’”). The group were able to craft dreamily compelling yet powerful atmospheres that were alternately as burning as Neil Young at his most harrowing and as hypnotically striking as the traffic lights through DeNiro’s rain-drenched windshield in Taxi Driver. The full band were truly impressive, and the solo and duo stuff should have been shortened or dropped in favor of the full-blown magnitude.

Locals knotworking warmed up the crowd with a loosely rocking set, kicking things off with a powerful rendition of “Loyal Servants.” The group are turning into a gnarly little rock outfit beyond all of the folk touches, and they were fuelled by a new drummer, Dan Sorenson (formerly of the Orange), a tall lanky man who hits them like he means it, and budding multi-instrumental star Meg Prokyrym, who offered some great mandolin along with her usual strains of violin. Katie Haverly started off the evening with a marvelous set that included a bunch of new numbers. Area treasure Haverly is better than a good portion of the touring singer-songwriters that sweep through our burg; get out and see her if you can.

—Erik Hage

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