In a time when beards and banjos have made the phrase “rock n roll” something dirty to look down on, the JSBX is here to cure what ails ya. Caught live Oct. 7 at The Recordbar in Kansas City, MO, along with fellow sonic subversive Kid Congo.
WORDS/PHOTOS BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are groundbreakers in the garage rock revival. Where other “blues acts” worshipped Skip James, Son House or, god forbid, Cream, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion knocked on the door of RL Burnside, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Lightin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and Screamin’ Lord Sutch, then kicked it in. Their wild, often twisted, look at the blues has been an angle I’ve liked since first hearing Extra Width back in my college days. They have always been left of center, slightly off their nut, exactly in the space I called home.
Standing at the bar, talking with a friend as I waited for the night’s openers Kid Kongo Powers & The Pink Monkeybirds to fire up, I noticed something strange, this was not the crowd I expected. Soccer moms drank white wine spritzers, elite types pretending not to enjoy themselves as they read books or fiddled with an iPad (who the fuck brings a book to a rock show?), doughy hipsters with handlebar moustaches and ironic t-shirts with cardigans, looking bored, stood with retro greasers (now, THAT I expected). The whole scene was strange; I had stepped into a pop culture infected “Twilight Zone.” I expected to see Rod Serling step out of the bathroom with his ever-present Lucky Strike in hand.
Just as defeat and disappointment descended upon me, Kid Congo Powers & The Pink Monkeybirds took the stage, changing my mood instantly. The band ripped into their brand of 1960’s Chicano garage freakout rock; listening to them is akin to witnessing a John Waters movie set to music: surreal, slightly psychedelic, neurotic and completely awesome.
Kid Congo — a legendary guitarist in the underground for his work with psychobilly royalty The Cramps, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and my personal favorite, The Gun Club — has built a career on the weird and time has not dulled his edge. Leaning heavily on material from the new album Haunted Head, they cranked out tunes like “Killer Diller,” “Su Su,” and “Dance Me Swampy.” Powers was wise to preface nearly every song with a story (for instance, the time Sky Saxon of The Seeds picked him up while hitchhiking in Hollywood) to set the mood, surrounding himself with a great rhythm section (especially drummer Ron Miller from Lawrence, Kansas band Up The Academy) and working the schtick masterfully.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are, without any inkling of doubt, the most intense band I have ever seen live. Easily, bar none, they are The Intensity Champions of the Universe. Spencer is a wild man and natural showman; pouring out his demons on the stage like Jerry Lee, talking to the crowd in tone, vigor and passion befitting a Southern preacher at a fire and brimstone tent revival. He jumped around the stage like a man possessed, stopping just short of howling at the moon as he played “Get Your Pants Off” from last year’s exceptional Meat +Bone.
The Recordbar (Kansas City’s best venue to see a band, in my opinion) was the best environment to see The Blues Explosion. Its intimate setting (250 people max) worked perfectly with Spencer’s “call and response” style of performing, he clearly feeds off being that close to the audience. He talked to the followers in attendance, took drinks from their beverages and caught me off guard with a kiss on the nose. [Wait, what? – Family Values Ed.]
The more the audience responded to what the band was doing, the more intensely they played, they were relentless, unstoppable and, except for problems with sound that washed out the vocals, perfect.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is no one man show, not by a long shot. Guitarist Judah Bauer was cool, calm and collected. Rarely did he sing (except for the rap section on “Flavor” originally done by Beck) opting instead to let his battle scarred Telecaster do all the talking and man, did it scream. After seeing him play, it is a sin that he is not mentioned alongside newly crowned “greats” like Auerbach and White; Bauer deserves to be in the conversation. Drummer Russell Simins beat his drum kit like a rented mule all night, foregoing flash for power. He was a man obsessed; playing every song like it would be his last night on the throne.
Many of the songs played were fragments, building into what seemed to be one colossal jam. “Chicken Dog,” “Black Mold,” “Wail” and “Bellbottoms” grew together relentlessly, never offering a break, never stopping, and never letting go. Hell, a person jumped on stage to propose to his girlfriend and the trio played through that.
In a time when beards and banjos have made the phrase “rock n roll” something dirty to look down on, it was great to see a band that still rocks as if they truly love what they do twenty-two years in. Life will always be good, or at the very least, interesting as long as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is around to blow your doors, or your pants, off.