The Boston Phoenix
December 17 - 24, 1998

[Music Reviews]

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Roots radicals

Jon Spencer and Horton Heat

by Carly Carioli

[Horton Heat] Jon Spencer -- born and raised in New Hampshire, shopped for new-wave records at the original Newbury Comics -- wanted to talk about the blues. "I wanna talk about the bluuuues!" he shouted. "The blues is number one. The blues is number one! Lemme tell ya -- I don't play no blues. I said, I -- I don't play no blues. I play rock and roll!" And so he did. On a Tuesday night at Avalon, there was no blues but plenty of Blues Explosion, and as demonstrated by "Talk About the Blues" -- from ACME (Matador), their latest -- the version of rock and roll that spins through Spencer's mind's eye is all shook up.

Since his days in Pussy Galore, Spencer's been mucking about with the idea of incorporating hip-hop's innovations -- breakbeats, non-linear editing techniques, samples -- into gutter-garage punk, with results that have often been more interesting aesthetically than they were danceable (which is why Beck and the Beasties play arenas, whereas Spencer just works the big clubs). The version of "Talk About the Blues" on Acme is such an experiment in weirdness, remixed with scratching and samples by Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. But in concert, it detonated with a rhythmic fury that approached the bombast of the best hip-hop: Russell Simmons providing a back-beat boom that you could feel in your chest; Judah Bauer mimicking the stuttering of DJ scratch on muted guitar strings; and Spencer, clad in a silver version of Elvis's '68 Comeback suit, stalking the stage like an MC before resting on bended knee like a sorcerer (or the King in mid karate chop) to coax a Public Enemy-like siren wail out of a theremin.

It was the triumphant culmination of a concert that, up to that point, had been a primer in old-fashioned rock and soul showmanship. Relying mostly on their previous two albums (and omitting their most successful single, "Bellbottoms," which wasn't missed), Spencer's oeuvre was equal parts Prince, Sam Cook, and Mick Jagger -- sounding like a portable Rolling Stones on the country punk of "High Gear" but bleeding into soul on "Magical Colors," which included lengthy soul testimony from Spencer to his wife, Boss Hog alumna Christina Martinez, on the occasion of their 13th anniversary.

The trio -- Spencer and Bauer on guitars with just a couple of modest-sized amps, and Simmins beating a scaled-down trap kit -- revisited the tension-and-release dynamics of indie rock as a kind of variation on the timeless call-and-response patterns of gospel, funk, hip-hop, and, yes, the blues. Spencer and Bauer spun Stax-Volt R&B arrangements into repetitive skeletal funk vamps reminiscent of "Brand New Bag"-era James Brown. And though Bauer's harmonica cameo during the encore seemed to evoke some mythical East-Village-on-the-Mississippi, Spencer was as interested in name-checking Olympia -- indie-punk center of the universe -- as Clarksdale. He did the former in introducing "Calvin," a "Funky Drummer" for the four-track generation in homage to Olympia producer/lo-fi auteur Calvin Johnson; the latter was invoked more simply when the band returned for a lengthy encore, which Spencer prefaced with R.L. Burnside's signature utterance: "Well, well, well."

All shook up the following night at the Roxy was Texan Jim Heath (better known by his ecclesiastical moniker, the Reverend Horton Heat), whose services at the altar of neo-psychobilly haven't changed drastically since he set to preaching up a storm on Sub Pop at the dawn of the decade. A martini here and an Ennio Morricone lick there have kept him on the dance card of retro-revivalists through several changes in dance instructors, though when the Reverend frets jazz chords and swings, it's still a lot closer to Bob Willis than Louis Armstrong. The Heated mix of sped-up stand-up bass and distorto-reverb is more conducive to heavy drinking than light sipping -- and in the spirit of full disclosure, this reviewer must admit he wound up completely tanked, which after all is the best way to enjoy all things even remotely rockabilly in nature.

The Reverend's band dipped liberally into their early albums, including such rude, liquored-up favorites as the self-explanatory "Wiggle Stick" and "Do It" -- the one where he asks his girlfriend to masturbate for him. As the gig was far from sold out, one might've wondered whether the Reverend is lucky Brian Setzer gave up rockabilly or screwed because the old Stray Cat's doing so well with the big-band thing. And you have to wonder how long riffs as old as Sun are gonna hold up under the weight of speed-metal tempos before the market -- or the drummer, or just the whole gimmick -- collapses. Not that the Reverend is naive about the dangers of devilish merriment running its course. Sonny Burgess's band used to die their hair flame-red, he pointed out. "It was a far cry from Marilyn Manson," the Reverend admitted. "But it was the '50s, dammit!"

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