Friday, May 31, 2019

At the park in the summer of 1977

I recently discovered Peter Elliott's terrific Park Life: The Summer of 1977 at Comiskey Park (2001), a collection of photographs that Elliott took during the "South Side Hitmen" season of '77. To someone who never made it to Comiskey (I moved to northern Illinois in 1995), these images are tremendously evocative—of the old park, yeah, but also of the era, of long afternoons of shirtless, beer-swilling fans getting rowdy next to more nattily dressed gents and women, of pennants and bench-and-concrete bleachers and inexpensive concessions. I urge you to track down a copy of this sadly out-of-print book. Here are a handful of images, in no particular order of awesomeness:

Monday, May 27, 2019

Wrens in stereo

DeKalb IL

We have two wren houses in our spruce trees, one outside of our south-facing bedroom window, one outside of the west-facing window. Each morning for the last week or so, two mates have been building a nest in each house, brightly singing to each other all the while. I don't know which house the female will choose, if one at all, but we've been waking up to wrens in stereo each morning and it's been terrific. That's the kind of news I like to wake up to.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Here's to a Life Sentence

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Some nights you want to rock out. Others you want to see how much damage was done to the foundations and support beams.

After surviving another endurance test last night from Guitar Wolf at Brauer House—the Japanese trio's abrasive, non-stop assault generally presses re-set on any evening, and how the night goes for you afterward depends on how close you were to the flying shrapnel—I noticed through the post-set smoke the Easybeats' "Good Times"  playing over the PA. And then Ike and Tina Turner's "Contact High" and "Funky Mule." Then the Sonics' "I Don't Need No Doctor" and "Be a Woman." Then the Ramones' "Main Man" and "Too Tough To Die." I began to revive. The playlist came via Nashville Pussy, and their sterling choice of rockin' songs cleansed my body of the post-Guitar Wolf radiation, and set the evening down a road of good times.

Nashville Pussy's touring behind their latest album Pleased To Eat You, but the show is vintage. They're sporting a terrific new drummer (Ben Thomas) and bass player (Bonnie Buitrago) since the last time I saw them, and Blaine Cartwright and the unstoppable Ruyter Suys anchor things with their road-tested, high-octane firepower. You know what you're going to get with Nashville Pussy, and that's part of the fun of seeing them and playing their records loudly: they don't disappoint because they know that what they do they do really well, and that it scratches the collective incurable itch of their fans. Last night's crowd felt somewhat sparse in the cavernous Brauer House, but they were amped, fists aloft and throats sore from exhorting. The reason I keep coming back to the band isn't only that I'm a recovering eighth-note addict and that they deliver live—Cartwright's worn-to-a-shed vocals and Suys' thrilling Gibson guitar shredding—but because many of their songs topical and smart, and always funny. Cartwright was asked recently whether he thinks that his lyrical blend of "raunch and humor" might have prevented his band from achieving greater commercial success. "Probably," he answered. "But I have to entertain myself; if others like it, that’s a bonus. It’s obviously more important to make my band mates laugh than get on the radio. And that takes a lot." Cheers. I'll toast that with PBR in my cowboy hat (see below).
The new songs—"Go Home and Die," "She Keeps Me Coming and I Keep Going Back," and "We Want a War," among them—dovetailed nicely with the band's classics "Go to Hell," "Rub It to Death," "Pussy Time," and "Go Motherfucker Go." Dirty, sleazy, indecorous: the band makes no apologies, grins with just enough irony to let us know they take this stuff seriously after all, and sets it all ablaze in righteous riffs, hooks, and yell-along choruses. Their influences are ace, too, starting with that killer playlist before they hit the stage and running throughout some great covers in the set, the Contours' "First I Look at the Purse," the (early) Parliament's "(I Wanna) Testify"—Cartwright wouldn't proceed until we gave Dr. Funkenstein a heartier cheer—and an honest, improbably affecting take on Steve Earle's "CCKMP." Thomas wore a Smokestack Lightning t shirt and Cartwright a Nine Pound Hammer t-shirt; I refrained from yelling out a request for his early/on-again-off-again band's tear through Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs' "Oh That's Good, No That's Bad." Now I regret it.

"Live is always more unpredictable and crazy," Cartwright said. "You gotta make rock n’ roll a bit dangerous or what’s the point?" He adds, "Live, we never stop screaming. It helps to not give a shit about the real world. Totally abandon all the crap that crosses your path and fills your mind. It’s all crap compared to the music."


A side note: for me the coolest moment last night came when Cartwright stepped to the mic and gave a shout out to my book AC/DC's Highway To Hell, in particular my passage about when you see Nashville Pussy that's about the closest you’ll get to seeing '70s prime AC/DC. I met the band for the first time and hung with them and their fans backstage, where everyone smoked and where Suys was gracious enough to ask if Cartwright had pronounced my name right (he hadn't, I'm used to it) and where I sipped from her Jack Daniels bottle and heard stories of the band sneaking in underage fans to theirs shows; one of those fans is now the band's bass player. Alas, Cartwright was otherwise occupied after the gig or we could've gotten in some good baseball talk, too. He and Suys are Rock and Roll lifers. I love 'em for that.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Rock River

Oregon, Illinois
"There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against another," Edouard Manet

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—The Hives demonstrate utter domination of the rock and roll stage. No, I'm not quoting their press release or an interview quip from front man Pelle Almqvist. The Hives are truly greater then the sum of their parts, which when combined threaten to topple most venues. "The Vic is such a beautiful theater. It'd be a shame if something happened to it," Almqvist announced wryly from the stage on Monday night. "Like if The Hives played there." Almqvist's schtick—haughty (and funny) Scandinavian arrogance and mock-condescension—hasn't changed a lick since I last saw the band, and neither has his mates' ferocious, stomping, on-point playing, and that's the point: you pay, the Hives deliver, no surprises, no disappointments. Guaranteed.

The band sported a new bass player, new to the U.S., anyway; The Johan and Only's been in the band since 2013. Drummer Chris Dangerous was missing, also; as Almqvist graphically explained to the crowd, he was the victim of some recent stomach surgery, and it's testament to the band's legendary showmanship that the cog that is the replacement drummer, whose name I regrettably missed, labored smoothly inside the Hive Engine, not missing a beat (figuratively, too, his moves in perfect sync with the rest of the band.) Watching the Hives own the stage, riding atop their insanely propulsive riffs and hooks, brings to mind peak, late-70s/early-80s AC/DC: rhythm guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem, he of the stout figure and Nordic beard, anchors stage right like a mountainous Malcolm Young, and flash lead guitarist Nicholaus Arson roams the joint like a more dapper Angus, all come-hither gestures and audience-baiting, laughably basking in the glow of his own wonderfulness. And Pelle: let's just say that he and Bon would've likely gotten along. Almqvist was charmingly imperfect at this gig: he was drinking beer, and more than once lost himself in the middle of his well-rehearsed patter, at one point letting loose a genuine grin and announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the part of the show where I have no idea what the fuck I'm talking about!" He quickly righted himself on those occasions, but the crack revealed the ace showman behind the mask. I liked him better for the rare fuckups.

What I love about the Hives is their nervy but endearing self-knowledge that the act they're putting on—the Hives play so well that they destroy all other rock and roll, and you are lucky to witness them—is part-joke and yet all-true. My tolerance for "funny" in rock and roll is not that high; the Hives are funny and they know they have the goods behind the irony. The fact that there is such a gap between their stateside visits only strengthens their myth and makes the joke funnier, and more powerful. The band still dresses in matching black-and-white suits, tuxedo shirts, and bow ties, the roadies in matching all-black Ninja outfits. And the songs are utterly fireproof: longstanding faves "Main Offender," "Go Right Ahead," "Hate to Say I Told You So," "Won't Be Long," and a ferocious "Tick Tick Boom" as an encore rocked the Vic from its foundation to the balconies, delivered with oiled precision that still sounded, and felt, recklessly hammered together. I was up-front all night, three deep in the rowdy section, and I left elated, drenched in sweat and beer. The band premiered a few new songs ("Paint a Picture," "Good Samaritan," and the new single, the pounding "I'm Alive") that confidently furthered the Hives Brand, but the bliss comes in how new and stirring the old songs still sound, the riffs and eighth-notes a perpetual motion machine. I felt elevated for most of the too-short show.

I'm a fan, obviously. It's especially fun to be a fan of the Hives. You're in the joke and the joke always delivers. "You do everything you weren't allowed to do in school," Almqvist has remarked about playing live. "Jumping up and down, screaming, annoying people, and people love you for it." A jest, and the truth.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Another dimension with Ex Hex

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—I was surprised that the Ex Hex show at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. hadn't sold out; after all they're a local outfit. My friend Steve shrugged, looked around at the venue, and said, "rock and roll." That is: it ain't selling these days. The crowd eventually packed the place nearly full, and pity those who didn't come out to hear this terrific band, touring behind their sophomore record It's Real. Onstage Ex Hex delivers glam, attitude, hooks, and old school showmanship, their sometimes angular, idiosyncratic tunes finding a true home under the lights. I'm a fan, but was a bit taken aback to see bassist Betsy Wright strap on a guitar as the band hit the stage. I learned that the original trio is now a quartet, at least at shows: David Christian plays bass while Wright joined Mary Timony on guitar and vocals; Laura Harris is steady on the drums. The dual axes delivered the goods: Ex Hex's sound was both fatter and brighter than on the albums, the riffs more muscular. Something seemed off with the band the last time I caught them a few years back, at the Empty Bottle in Chicago; the band was more confident this time around (though I also recall a wan-looking Timony complaining at the Bottle that it felt like it was 110 degrees onstage). The band's songs' evocations of late 70s' FM radio hits—"If Pat Benatar, why not Ex Hex?!", that eternal debate—were made graphically present by the glinting guitar lines, and the tunes sounded more radio-ready than ever, whatever that means in this century. As always, Timony's leads added so much personality to the songs: they're somehow thoughtful, melodies inside of melodies, musical ideas among ideas, fretboard Greek Choruses. If an Ex Hex song is a party, then a Timony solo is the guest you remember most the next morning. Wright's bad-ass riffing and her own rawer, less studied solos were a perfect balance to Timony's head-down care and attention. The women's now-standard lean-in toward each other during solos is arena camp; I like the stage-ready gesture, but I fear it'll become too schtick-y. In any case I hope Wright keeps her bass in its case from now on. The band confidently tore through a clutch of great tunes from both albums: "You Fell Apart," the driving three-chord "Diamond Drive," "Tough Enough," captivating versions of "Another Dimension" (which cast a spell that never lifted) and "Radiate," "Rainbow Shiner," and an encore of "Radio On" and "Hot and Cold." (Regrettably they didn't play my favorite from the new album, the complex "Want It To Be True." I don't know that the studio arrangement would work well onstage.)

The strutting Ex Hex played with grateful smiles on their home turf, their sturdy songs hook-laden gifts back to us. Thanks.