Sugar 'n' Spikes 

Thursday, Jan 16 2003
Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

Clean Needles Now benefit with ELLIOTT SMITH, NEBULA, THE TYDE, MIDGET HANDJOB at Spaceland, January 12

There are at least two lessons to be gleaned from substance-abuse benefits like Clean Needles Now's three-day blowout. First, saving lives without moralistic judgment via an in-your-dreams musical lineup is exceedingly cool. The second is that Nebula fucking rules. The L.A. power trio might currently reside in the shadow of that other band in the desert-rock scene, but bassist Mark Abshire and drummer Reuben Romano's dirt-punk/stoner groove locking into guitarist Eddie Glass' psychedelic workouts is the best drug around. "Ewww, they're like Black Sabbath," a CNN volunteer said, curling her lip. She's wrong — they're better. At least Nebula called out what made everyone so squeamish. "To all the junkies," Glass said, followed by some sotto voce crack only the band members got.

Unlike with Keith Morris' experimental grab bag Midget Handjob and the buoyant tuneage of the Tyde ("Coool, they're like Spiritualized," said the same volunteer), Elliott Smith's arrival was greeted by the kind of hushed awe that accompanies a Virgin of Guadalupe sighting. As endearingly disheveled as this man-waif is, Smith's attitude toward the sterile-syringe cause was the most pragmatic. "I wanted to get as big a draw as possible; I wish they had used my name," he murmured, referring to the hush-hush nature of his appearance. Despite a five-album discography, Smith chose the melancholy selections from Either/Or and XO as opposed to the poppy, big-budget Figure 8, and sat so close to the edge of the stage that he seemed a part of the audience, cooing and strumming an acoustic all by his lonesome. Of course, he's more fun with a backing band, but the Spartan setting only highlighted how angelic his voice is and, more importantly, his knack for turning ordinary experience into the stuff of Greek drama.

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The juxtaposition of disparate elements has been the crux of rock & roll since the middle '50s, when the odd hybrid of R&B and C&W created this most American of musics. Therefore, the idea of crusty reprobates from the seamy underside giving it up for clean living (or cleaner drug habits) with raunchy rawness isn't as strange as it might seem.

Rendered nomadic by the twin villains of gentrification and NIMBY, the Hollywood Needle Exchange needs a home and money, as it has neither right now. This lineup of locals and transplantees to the city offered up its own version of the new urban blues as a common thread, though none of the acts remotely resembled one another in style or presentation. For that reason alone, it was an enigmatic gig, a throwback to the days of all non-mainstream acts sharing the same stages, like some of the great bills at the old Fillmore when, say, Miles Davis and Steve Miller would share an evening.

Maybe not quite that eclectic — Featherwood Junction offered up late-'70s-ish midtempo punk-pop like a non-warbling Undertones or a heavier Real Kids, ceding the boards to the great punk emeritus Wayne Kramer. The MC5's co-founder stood solo acoustic and belted out his own crossbred blend of plaint, Midwestern-earnestness-meets-wry-streetism, especially on "Negative Girls" and "Junkie Romance." Orange County's answer to Glenn Danzig, Mr. Duane Peters and his new Hunn rockers, were pure fury, tighter and less anthemic than his U.S. Bombs and swinging in a kind of neo-surf groove anchored by new boy Noah on drums and the incomparable Corey Parks on bass. The latter's fire-breathing act from her old band Nashville Pussy was reprised in their set-closer, "Nuke HB." It was as good as the old bar-band slam gets these days, shocking in that Peters occasionally sings as opposed to howls, and that Parks, for all of her mugging and showiness, is more than competent as a four-stringer.

Brian Jones Massacre shambled in a strange place between dreamy/dreary and riff-slam, and despite their interminable tune-ups between songs, they had a greater grip on their Brit-derived hero worship than at any time in their long, bizarre career. That they showed up at all for a cause so non-sympathetic to any devil is testimony to the changing times, if any single moment of this quirky little rockers' night out was. (Johnny Angel)

STARGUNN, PENFIFTEEN CLUB at the Viper Room, January 10

After the Penfifteen Club's set of hook-laden, feel-good rock & roll, riding along guitar riffs Joe Walsh would kill to have written and Billy Gibbons probably has, the crowd at the Viper Room was particularly fired up to see Stargunn, the recently hyped Southern-fried rock band fronted by Waylon A. "Shooter" Jennings, son of the late country-music star and Elvis sidekick. But where P15 cleverly integrated their '70s-rock influences with more than a small dose of originality, Stargunn served their barely reheated fricassee straight out of the doggie bag, Confederate-flag T-shirt, handlebar mustache and bicep skull tattoo perfectly intact.

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