Andre Williams Corner Hotel, Melbourne (April 14) The man is dressed sharp. White suit, red shirt, red tie, red hankie. He grabs the microphone stand, slams it back into his body. Yells. Screams. Drops to his knees. Slaps the dancing girl on her tush as another mean, gritty blues riff starts up. Shouts something indecipherable over the echo-laden, grungy guitars. Screams again. Executes a neat turn, wipes his brow and settles down side-stage. Whips the microphone from out of its socket and starts beating himself into a frenzy.
Andre Williams has come a long way since he had a handful of hits in the 50s. Once venerated by the Blues Brothers (his best-known song, "Shake a Tail Feather," was featured in their film), his brand of creepy, voice-over r&b is now being championed by a new generation of white-boy wannabe bluesmen?Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Gories and Demolition Doll Rods foremost among them. Spencer, in particular, owes Williams a massive debt. Williams' new album The Black Godfather is as dirty and lowdown as they come. Songs like the full-on "Fire in the Hole" and the title track reveal a whole new blaxploitation element to his music. Explicit where once he would tease, the sixtysomething Williams gives his pretenders a run for their money in terms of energy alone. Image-wise, he's in a class of his own.
"People think that the world revolves around money, but they're wrong," shouts the musical mack as the crowd yells approval. "The world revolves around pussy. Of course, you've gotta have money to get pussy. You've got to look good, you've got to smell good. Then you can get pussy."
Tonight, Williams pulls out most of the stops. A medley of old hits?"Tail Feather," "Pass the Biscuits Please," "Greasy Chicken" and classic proto-grunge blues number "Bacon Fat" among them?is followed by some slick dance moves and a rant on how he can help us all achieve pussy nirvana. In fact, he's begging us to let him achieve pussy nirvana on our behalf. His band?some members of Australia's nasty rockers Beasts of Bourbon and a few Kim Salmon backing musicians?are excellent, especially considering they'd only been practicing for three hours beforehand. They're as snarling and greasy as you'd want. As Williams rasps on the opening track to his genius 1998 album Silky, "I'm agile, mobile and hostile." You better believe it.
The Negro Problem Knitting Factory (March 8)
"Most people provide answers," Stew said, near the beginning of the set. "We provide questions that you already have the answers to."
Those questions concerned the desperate optimism of people who keep going back to rehab, women who deserve better than the men they end up with, the implied sexuality of children's toys, destroyed relationships and the dark side of television news anchormen?observations on the absurdity of postmodern life, and of what people go through to survive it. Stew leads the Negro Problem, a band from Los Angeles that has put out two albums, Post Minstrel Syndrome and Joys & Concerns, and he's one of the most thoughtful and humorous songwriters to come along in years, following squarely in the tradition of skewed and sarcastic social commentary as perfected by Randy Newman and Ray Davies. In their world, and Stew's, life's incongruities come out in the details, whether it's in somebody's personal story of denial and frustration or in snapshots of the larger civic sphere of the rich fucking the poor, while the middle class fucks anybody it can.
At this show, the second of five Wednesday-night gigs the band held in a broken-down, "Unplugged" form?they were only three, though the band has been known to stretch to as many as six?at the Knitting Factory's intimate downstairs Old Office, alienation was the theme. Stew opened with "Ken," the story of Barbie's boyfriend, born gay in a plastic-toy factory and doomed to live a manufactured, phony life. "My name's Ken and I like men," he sings. "But the people at Mattel, the home that I call hell, are somewhat bothered by my queer proclivities." Ken resigns himself to putting up the act of living in your children's bedrooms and loving Barbie, but he dreams about loving G.I. Joe. "I'm your corporate toy, cursed to bring you joy," he says. "So fa-la-la-la, la-la, la-la, la-fuckin'-la."
Later, Stew played a brand-new song called "Come on Everybody, Come," that was a preemptive strike against the moneyed types who are all but destined to gentrify his comfortably cheap and hip neighborhood in L.A. "Come on everybody, come on and fuck up my neighborhood," Stew explained before playing the song, "because you're just going to do it anyway." It was the best song they played all night, and featured excellent backing vocals by Stew's bassist and backup chick, Heidi Rodewald.
Throughout the show, the band's sound was fresh and direct, just guitar and bass for most of the songs, with some minimal keyboard work by Rodewald in spots. They had a drummer, who sat twiddling his thumbs for much of the night while Stew stole the show with nothing but his wry sense of humor and his knack for telling tragicomic vignettes. Stew should learn from this experience: it was much better than the band has ever sounded on record, on which they seem to be afflicted by the L.A. Band Syndrome, tinkering with the songs way too much in the studio and diluting the strength and beauty of the songs themselves. Onstage here, Stew had no lounge-band horns or synth effects to throw into the mix, and it was for the better. He had to rely on his guitar and his voice?a poignant tenor that on "Joys & Concerns" is tampered with too much, at times actually sounding like Ozzy Osbourne's helium falsetto. It took Ray Davies 30 years to figure out that he doesn't need his band at all. Let's hope Stew doesn't take that long.
Ben Sisario U.S. Maple
Tonic, March 26
U.S. Maple is the most perverse rock group in existence. Onstage they look like an irate gang of junked-out, sickly homosexuals who want to stab you to death with a comb and steal your lunch money. On vinyl, the theatrical creeps have gradually shed their mid-90s indie-punk tendencies to disassemble and reexamine music's raw materials. Evoking the anti-everything spirit of New York's late-70s no-wave micro-movement, U.S. Maple have rewritten and smudged the established definitions and functions of rhythm, voice and harmony. Many bands attempt to deconstruct rock, but this Chicago-bred quartet shreds the very blueprint of the genre. In the process, they stumble over fatigued jazz, doper blues and free noise forms, basing their chiseled, meticulous compositions on seemingly illogical, otherworldly notions of tonality.
U.S. Maple's third album and Drag City Records debut, the exceptionally knotty, Michael Gira-produced Talker, was perhaps the most startling and puzzling LP of 1999. On this fine effort, four men simultaneously play four unrelated tunes while forcing holistic cohesion out of the seemingly mismatched structures. The songs jell uneasily and uncomfortably, but they jell nonetheless, ensuring that you pay close attention to the nightmarish discharge of thought-provoking unpleasantness.
Despite their bizarre affectations, U.S. Maple transcend mere conceptual success. Nowhere is their depth, irreverence and physical impact more evident than in a live setting. Their Talker-heavy set at Tonic boasted a seismic bottom end, a percussive propulsion and a visual ridiculousness that prevented the show from becoming an arty bore. In fact, it is arguable that U.S. Maple needs to be seen, as well as heard, to be fully appreciated.
Lunging at the air, feeling himself up and gesticulating both wildly and slyly, frontman Al Johnson hissed and seethed like a Komodo dragon. He grunted and whispered harshly, as if he were singing his cut-up lyrics backwards with a mouthful of someone else's bloody teeth. Wearing a purple t-shirt and fighting to keep his oily bangs out of his face, he rasped some of the most sublime syllables ever forced from the throat. Drummer Pat Samson battered his kit in deliberate fits and starts, like a pro who was consciously making mistakes and misplacing his accents, then forming new beats from his repeated errors. He often kept time against, rather than with the rest.
Guitarists Mark Shippy and Todd Rittmann appeared diametrically opposed. The former, slightly plump and draped in a baggy suit, often stood around daydreaming, his moppy blond hair flopping over his eyes. To his right, the slim, confrontational Rittmann hammed it up grotesquely, darting about in his crimson velvet vest and matching choker. Visions of sodomy no doubt danced in his head as he puckered his ruby-red lips, scowled and blurted out abrupt, angry-bored cues to his accomplices. But his contrived behavior couldn't overshadow his unconventional skill; his fingers blurred as he picked at the bridge of his modified stereo-amped Les Paul with deranged dexterity. Both he and Shippy detune their instruments to favor only high-highs and low-lows. Their double-time trebly leads and subsonic, hanging chords suggest amplified rubber bands. Coupled with Samson's constantly accelerating and slowing tempos, the effect is delightfully nervewracking and shrill, yet also spacious and rich; you won't notice that U.S. Maple doesn't have a bassist.
Everything about the music is totally wrong, but it works like a charm. Last summer, touring with Pavement, U.S. Maple drew jeers from agitated college squares. But, like Flipper and Royal Trux before them, they turned their attitude into infamy. A month or two later, they became darlings when they joined an unannounced Sonic Youth during a sold-out night at the Knitting Factory. The large crowd at Tonic also embraced them, but the receptive atmosphere hardly mattered: U.S. Maple still acted like they wanted to molest their fans, then go eat a ham sandwich or something. In this squeaky-clean era of politely quirky underground pop, thank God somebody still has the balls and brains to sound so twistedly intelligent, so coarsely negative and so obnoxiously cool.
High Rise Tonic, March 14
It is common pop-culture knowledge that every respectable rock musician either dies or retires prior to his 30th birthday. True, the world should have been spared the geriatric, twilight years of such "seminal"-turned-irrelevant check-cashers as the Stones, the Who, Sabbath, Suicide and Flipper. But a host of groundbreaking freaks have managed to go gray and persevere while keeping cred and integrity intact.
So screw "common" knowledge and screw mainstream pop culture along with it. If you dig deep enough, you'll uncover a number of elders who have honed and updated their crafts while refusing to grow cynical, tiresome or lame: Michael Gira, Circle X, the Toiling Midgets, Daevid Allen and dozens of others who, despite their relative obscurity, haven proven that it's possible to mature without mellowing out.
Add the middle-aged members of High Rise, a discordant Tokyo-based power trio, to that list. Since the early 80s, bassist/singer Asahito Nanjo, seizure-guitarist Munehiro Narita and various drummers have been exploring the outer limits of chaotic heaviness and roaring velocity. The band is loosely identifiable as psychedelic punk, but their bombastic, distorted rush is smarter and more substantial, full of darkness, corrosion and unstable energy. Every one of their LPs swings like an electrified nutsac.
High Rise base their deceptively simple songs around hallowed, well-worn riffs, over which Narita solos anarchically, as if he were spray-painting obscenities across an ancient text. Their radical diablerie eludes simple classification, possessing a particularly Japanese affinity for information overload, quickness and noise. Yet despite their exotic pedigree and their prolific, confusing side projects, High Rise aren't import-bin anomalies who will appeal only to record collectors. Their wicked snarl is familiar enough to speak to anyone who likes three chords and a 4/4 beat.
Thanks to Squealer Revisited, a subsidiary of Virginia's Squealer Music (SquealerMusic.com), High Rise's most sought-after albums are finally obtainable and affordable. In 1998 and 1999, the label domestically issued the magnum opus High Rise II (1986), the slower follow-up Dispersion (1992), the self-explanatory Live (1994) and the more polished Disallow (1996), all of which originally appeared on Tokyo's PSF Records. Somebody is obviously buying the things; while the sweaty onlookers at Tonic included the expected avant-cognoscenti and hipsters, the audience also swelled with normals who just wanted to have their colons massaged by the wall-shaking vibrations of Nanjo's overdriven basslines and Narita's gurgling wah-wah fuzz. In fact, the evening went down as High Rise's first-ever sold-out performance.
Fortunately, Nanjo, Narita and percussionist Koji Shimura ignored the hoopla and got down to humorless business, tearing through a 45-minute career-spanning set. Barring the guitarist and bassist's matching leather pants and Nanjo's trademark sunglasses, High Rise aren't about poses, fashion or crowd-pleasing. They refuse to address or make eye contact with their fans. Encores are rare. The players look inward for inspiration, coming off as somewhat aloof, but deadly and focused. Onstage, they religiously stretch their material to the breaking point, nailing their verses and choruses while jamming into hyperkinetic infinity on the lengthy freeform sections that make their tunes soar. Call it harmolodic biker rock.
The Tonic date still wasn't adequately deafening, but it was thankfully louder than the group's intense but low-volume Halloween '98 show at the Mercury Lounge. In addition, the recently recruited Shimura's firm, workmanlike hand suits High Rise's dynamic far better than the jazz-flash of his predecessor, the flamboyant Shoji Hano. The sturdier rhythmic foundation calls more attention to the compositions' true essence?Nanjo's big, grumbling melodies and parenthetical vocals, bisected by Narita's phenomenally blurry peals, runs, hammer-ons and solos. High Rise's balance of businesslike nonchalance and frenzied skill should allow them to remain totally fucking mindblowing until arthritis sets in.
Jordan N. Mamone
Bryan Adams Melbourne Park, March 1
Critics despise Bryan Adams. Initially the Canadian pop star was dismissed for being a radio-friendly version of Bruce Springsteen. Then commentators started comparing the gravel-throated crooner's body of work to Rod Stewart's fallow 80s period. The British public soon came to regard the affable songwriter as something akin to the devil after his maudlin ballad "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)" (from Prince of Thieves) topped the UK charts for months. In recent years, Adams has moved away from leather-jacketed rock, preferring instead to write chart-bound ballads for the ladies. This has caused even more ridicule. Recently, he's been experimenting with dance rhythms and duetting with the odd Spice Girl. Surely, this man is beyond the pale?
Not to judge from this performance in Melbourne. For starters, he has such a rapport with his working-class audience. Frequently, he stops a song and entreats his fans to sing louder, not continuing until he's satisfied the requisite volume has been attained. For the unrepentantly nostalgic "Summer of '69," the audience sang the first two verses, with virtually no accompaniment. It's touching to be privy to so many shared dreams. For "When You're Gone" he invites a starstruck female up onstage to duet with him: that she is unable to hit a single note only adds to the song's charm. On another occasion, the bassist/singer becomes diverted by a passing cricket, instructing his lighting engineer to shine a spotlight on the insect until it has scuttled to safety.
These diversions on their own would be enough to forgive Adams most of his crimes against music, but the fact is that he's actually not bad live. Especially when he keeps his music simple, stripped-back to a basic rock boogie that uncannily recalls Status Quo. Certainly, he's been taking lessons in presentation. The set is comprised of eight large amps placed either side of the drums, and a simple light show. The band is a similarly unpretentious three-piece. Even "Everything I Do" sounds fine-ish tonight, performed acoustically. Adams self-deprecatingly jokes beforehand that "it's the most famous song ever written for the didgeridoo," before intentionally messing up the start.
Hank Williams III is the biggest ripoff in American music since Hank Williams Jr. His name isn't even Hank. It's Shelton. He adopted the name?"Hank III," his album reads, like a movie sequel?late in his youth for the sole purpose of capitalizing on a valuable trademark. His songs are weak. And he doesn't even write most of them. At least his estranged father can say that he writes music, even if that means the theme to Monday Night Football. And then there's the matter of his grandfather, a founder of country music as well as its last real survivor before the style was transformed into modern pop. Hank I's music, following in the tradition of Jimmie Rodgers and the black blues singers who instructed him on how to play the guitar, painted a grim portrait of America as a lonely, desolate, purgatorial highway with predators and hellhounds around every turn.
Hank III's songs are just about getting fucked up and hootin' and hollerin'. Shelton Williams, 26, reportedly spent his early years with little or no connection to Bocephus or the rest of the Williams clan, raised by his mother. He hung out in Georgia and eventually played in some punk bands. Then he got the idea to masquerade as the scion of the Williams family of country music. His debut was The Three Hanks, released by Curb records in 1996, a piece of exploitation matched only by "There's a Tear in My Beer"?Bocephus again.
Tonight the Rodeo Bar is packed with people just dying to get one glimpse of the grandson of Hank Williams, and who can blame them. But there's nothing to see, or hear. The guy looks a little like Hank I. So do half the guys in here, minus all the arm-length tattoos. So he has a voice that sort of sounds like granddad. So what. Pinch your nose and you can do the same. On the Rodeo Bar's p.a. system, the low end of Hank's mic has been cut out to make his voice more closely resemble the thin whine of Hank I's old records. His songs are harmless ditties that chug along, a pantomime of his grandfather's music that is only half alive; what life it has is due only to its essential deviousness.
I would like to hear what the real Shelton Williams sounds like. He's got to have some real emotions. He grew up without a father and has a $300-a-week pot habit. Why this elaborate disguise? Why drop punk? If that's what he loves, and if that's where he's found his voice?not the voice of a relative he never knew who died nearly 20 years before he was born?then why not stick with it? I can think of no American musical descent more fascinating or telling than a line that goes from the proto-country of Hank I to the bloated glitz of Hank II to the punk rock of Shelton, the prodigal grandson. Come on, Shelton, let it out.
Home Brownies (February 26)
Five years ago, Home seemed to have one foot in a Rick Wakeman sort of morass?with their straight-faced time changes and lyrical stiffness, it always surprised me that hipster labels like Emperor Jones and Jetset would bankroll their silly playing?but they've quietly tamed their indulgences and emerged with a direct and beautiful album. Home XIV was produced by Dave Fridmann of Mercury Rev, who also did the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin. And it does sound both cleaner and fuller than any of the previous records. But Maurice Starr and Max Martin aside, producers don't usually write the songs, so let's give the guys in the band some credit. Yes, the lyrics have a little too much Myth of Sisyphus/Utopia Rising/I Believe the Children Are Our Future nonsense ring to them, but they're grafted to melodies that don't shift gears every eight measures, i.e., you can sing along and not worry about a punched-in conch solo interrupting your reverie. These are catchy little three- and four-minute deals, many of which go like this: verse/chorus/verse.
I attended the release party for the album, and what stands out in my memory is the sport coat worn by keyboardist Eric Morrison. It blew my mind, because I still have nightmares about catching Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or was it Powell?) on television when I was 14, and Keith Emerson had a jacket just like it. Emerson was even more pretentious than you can imagine; he quoted Copland and Mussorgsky in his solos, and then he'd walk around the keyboard and play from the other side. Just as a gimmick.
I'm not bringing this up because I have a problem with Morrison's fashion sense (I've been known to wear tweed myself), but because all those ELP associations didn't just flutter away after a few songs. As much as I wanted to believe that XIV was a clean slate, the roots are too deep. I should have known from the number of effects pedals before me that I would hear no spartan quartet. They opened with one of the two songs on XIV that I don't like, which is called "Children's Suite:3: Displaying Prizms" and sounds like "Point of Know Return"-era Kansas interpreting the E.T. score. The next hour and a half was an unfocused haze, but a steadily improving venture, in that its indulgences started to sound dirtier and druggier, more Spaceman 3 psychedelic than Gentle Giant psychedelic. At the end they were kind enough to finally perform the anthemic "Burden," the first proper song on XIV, but by then it sounded...well, too stripped down, too concise. Where were the keyboard flourishes, the layers of African percussion? I realized I'd been there too long, went home, and put on a Neil Young record.
Primal Scream The Palace, Melbourne (January 28)
"I watched that Clash film the other day. I was almost in tears. That band were so much in love with their music," said Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie recently. "Music today seems so loveless and so conservative."
It must be difficult being Gillespie. People expect so much of you. Wanting to get higher. And higher. Expecting continual revolutions in the wake of 1991's epoch-defining Screamadelica. Never understanding that the secret of music is to get wasted and stay wasted. But they should take a look at Primal Scream. They should listen to records like the nihilistic Kowalski and much misunderstood Give Out but Don't Give Up. Primal Scream aren't about revolution, they just want to have fun. ("What is it that you want to do?/We want to be free to do what we want to do/We want to get loaded and have a good time.") Turn the lights on low, freak out. Play "Moving On Up," the whole crowd singing along. Rap like the genre's just been invented ("Pills"), inciting people to riot/dance with your fucked-up speech. Sink down into a deep, stoned trance with some of the funkiest bass riffs ever made by white boys.
Primal Scream may be on the cutting edge of dance, through their association with Chemical Brothers and David Holmes, but Gillespie, like Joe Strummer before him, is in love with rock 'n' roll as the Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone and the MC5 defined it. Loud, in-your-face and aware.
Gillespie tonight barely says a word to his audience. He bobs and weaves and feints like a boxer who could be knocked down by a punch from the weediest of opponents. The muscle comes in the three guitarists?My Bloody Valentine's noise-terrorist Kevin Shields foremost among them?and massive, pumping bass lines from ex-Stone Roses Mani. They rage through a surprisingly lively version of "Rocks." It's no surprise they finish the evening with a highly charged version of "Kick Out the Jams!" Their whole shtick nowadays is an extended call to arms. To rock. Rock is almost dead, but you're still in love with rock 'n' roll. What to do? Pump the volume up, take the stage with a blistering, stunning array of strobe guns and flashing lights...and then pump the volume some more. Primal Scream are so loud they make teeth vibrate. The new single "Swastika Eyes" is almost enervating in its intensity, fully spiteful. And yet it's obvious they'd turn the volume up higher if they could. Primal Scream are such a cliched, classic rock band in so many respects?the guitar freakouts, the covers ("I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night"), the rock encores, the way Gillespie holds his tambourine like a younger, sleazier Jagger. But it's because they're so in love with rock 'n' roll that they have to keep reinventing the genre and creating songs like the four-on-the-floor "Exterminator" and jazz-centric "Blood Money." That's why "Accelerator" is so frantic and distorted, why "If They Move, Kill 'Em" sounds light-years ahead of its time. If Primal Scream stops, the rock might stop. And that would never do.