BY JENNIFER KELLY
A drunken night of garage punk at Chicago’s Empty Bottle on October 20, starts with the killer-drummed, grunge-slanted roar of Memphis’ Sheiks, winds through the straight-up, speed addled hardcore of the Morons (the Chicago Morons, not the semi-legendary 1990s Albany punk band) and ends up slurred, bleary and mesmeric in John Wesley Coleman’s swaggering set. Peyton Manning is on the TV between sets, proving that you can’t go home again, at least not without getting the shit kicked out of you, so why not go out instead, Sunday nights be damned.
I’m actually sort of proud of myself for being in the Empty Bottle, since I don’t live in Chicago, no one would go with me and the trip there involves one subway, one long connecting bus ride and about six blocks of walking alone in the dark. There are not many people there when I arrive (or when I leave), fewer than 20 and all but five or six of them are in the three bands. Maybe everyone else got lost.
But you know what, it’s worth the trip, because Sheiks, a two-guitar, one-awesome drummer trio out of Memphis, plays a great set, evoking garage band classics like the Saints and NY Dolls one minute, then switching to woozy, grunge-y overload. Songs like “Makin’ Me Scream” clatter and slash a la melodic, scrappy garage punk bands like the Ponys, Jay Reatard and Cheap Time, but then the tall long-haired guitar player begins churning a viscous, evilly dissonant riff and “Fever” starts sounding like Bleach-era Nirvana. Behind it all is the band’s secret weapon, the drummer Graham Winchester, pounding hard and fast and all over the kit in 16th note spatters and rattles and rampages.
Sheiks have a wild, transformative, acid-eaten expansiveness to their sound that toys with 1960s mod psych (one song, something about “palace of darkness” has harmonies, sitar-ish wavery chords and a strong whiff of the Nuggets box). The Morons are far more straightforward, playing blazing fast, hard, melodic punk like a Fatwreck band or maybe Vagrant, and occasionally, I think with “Broke + Stupid” sounding a bit like the Clash, with blazing walls of “White Riot”-esque strumming. There’s nothing very complicated about what the Morons do, but they do it pretty well, with unstoppable energy, blitzkrieg speed and scrabbly enthusiasm.
As the Morons are banging out their frenetic set, John Wesley Coleman, the blues-punk-poet ex- of Golden Boys, glides by on a skateboard.
That’s maybe a signal, because soon after, Coleman is onstage with a large ensemble – himself, bassist Geena Spigarelli, drummer Yamal Said, a sax player and a keyboard player. It’s a swaggering, crazily chaotic line-up, Spigarelli and Said holding things together, as the sax, keyboard and JWC himself careen off into unpredictable directions. They start with “My Grave” from The Last Donkey Show, hitting the knife-edge balance between circus-y exuberance (the sax and wheedling keyboard) and heart-ache (Coleman’s raking, breaking voice). Then, the show spirals further into weirdness with the Coleman classic “Jesus Never Went to Junior High,” a honky-tonk oddity reflecting, perhaps, Coleman’s churchy Texas youth. It imagines Jesus on board school bus, Coleman in the back “eating all the acid.”
That song is as close as Coleman gets to a folk song, though it’s a twisted, outsider-y one. Then it’s off into blaring, blasting, rock, the blistered chords and strung-out melodic rampage of “Fields of Love,” the roadhouse swagger of “Bad Lady Goes to Jail.”
In amongst the songs, Coleman ventures some observations – about Jesus, the suckiness of Sunday night shows, the cowboy-film clichés of “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places” – but it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. That’s partly because of the sound system, partly because of his thick Texas drawl and partly because he’s been drinking all night and, by the end, is damned close to incoherent. Indeed, drunken-ness is a bit of theme. Instead of the standard “We’ve got a few more songs to play” he announces, “We’ve got one more round of drink tickets,” and late in the show, during the droning, transporting “Oh Basketball” he orders a round of shots for everyone in the band. The keyboard player holds Spigarelli’s dose up to her lips and she downs it without missing a thunk of her dense, pick-less bass line. The whole band is swaying by the end of the set, mostly from the music, but also because the room is likely spinning.
Coleman, playing a borrowed guitar, has to tune it for every song, and finally, near the end asks if anyone else wants to play guitar. A skinny man in a Stetson climbs onto the stage and mimes guitar as the band plays a bastardized version of “Monster Mash.” It’s rock and roll veering wildly out of control, off the tracks and over the precipice, about as far as you can get from the manicured market-readiness of CMJ (going on at the exact same time, 800 miles away in NYC). Nice to know that it still goes on, even if no one is paying attention.