Pure Class

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

THE UPPER CRUST at Spaceland, February 18

The Upper Crust may have emerged from Boston during the Clinton era, but their time is clearly now: Is there a better song than the Crust's "Baby, I Was Born To Rule" to accompany the dynastic reign of our supremely arrogant and idiotic President George? And is there a better group to perform that song than the Crust, a (now) four-piece done up in 18th-century aristo-garb — pancake makeup, white curled bubblewigs — able to capably churn out the fratboy-amok-rock of AC/DC, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and Kiss (and a zillion generic others) between sips from their goblets? Doubt it. This is one joke (band) that's gotten better with age, an all-highlight revue of royally rocking riffs, supremely preening two-liners and William Buckley-esque down-the-nose sniffing and eye-rolling.

Tonight, as always, the Crust give us what they want. There's no "Friend of a Friend of the Working Class," but there is "Old Money" and "Matron" and "Boudoir" and "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "We're Finished With Finishing School." And of course there's "Let Them Eat Rock," whose lyrics are printed in the evening's program so we can all sing — as one with the Crust — the immortal lines, "They say there's people starving, dropping down dead in the streets/The lazy slobs, they ain't got a job, they say they ain't got enough to eat/Let Them Eat Rock!"

These are the songs Lee Atwater spins in his grave; the theme music of a slightly hipper John Ashcroft and Orrin Hatch; the true soundtrack to the oligarch vomitoria of Bohemian Grove gatherings. They're arguably the best sarcastic-rock tunes since the Dead Kennedys — a point brought home when lead vocalist-guitarist Lord Bendover nonchalantly tossed one of his guitar picks into the arms of the adoring masses, and it landed in the hand of — I bullshit you not — none other than Jello Biafra. It was a moment of pure poetry. Or was it privilege?

DJ KRUSH, MISTA SINISTA at El Rey, February 21

The chorus of boos that greeted Mista Sinista's set last Friday was reminiscent of a high school pep rally where the cheerleading squad gets showered with spitballs. Already past 11 p.m. and Sinista was still ensconced in a remote sound booth in the back of the theater, all but invisible to the folks below. And the poor guy had no choice. Like any professional, DJ Krush is superstitious about support acts tainting his turntables.

The 41-year-old Krush put his hands together, took a swift bow, and proceeded to take us on a two-hour journey inside his skull — a sojourn that some thought woulda been doper had the visuals been more than Steadicam shots of Krush's three-quarter profile. But who needs rainbow-hued morphing blobs or any of that candy-raver shit when the man's hands communicate so deeply? And you know what they say, a DJ is only as good as his record collection, but Krush chewed up and spat out that maxim into an ambitious suite of aural curios and textural contrasts. At times, seemingly static bass drone throbbed and fidgeted till the wallpaper almost peeled off; other times, 808-heavy boom-bap was paired with jazzbo squawks and hard-bop chirps that had no right to be together, but your twisting torso and bobbing head said otherwise.

Unlike DJ Shadow — who reportedly has a vinyl library 15,000 LPs strong — Krush won't spend 10 years searching for the perfect beat; he gathers up pop-culture clichés with Zen-like equanimity, then peels back the layers until they're fresh as newborn babes. (Andrew Lentz)

INTERPOL, THE WARLOCKS, MOVING UNITS at the Henry Fonda Theater, February 18

It's clear that the members of Interpol want to be taken seriously. Only six months after the release of their first album, Turn On the Bright Lights, the quartet are already guarded around members of the press who mention Joy Division and the Psychedelic Furs as possible influences. "I don't really know what we do . . . we don't look at the style of music we make," guitarist Daniel Kessler painstakingly pointed out in a pre-gig interview. "I don't premeditate what I do. It just comes out subconsciously." Interpol feel they're creating something wholly original, and they want you to know it.

Freud and Jung aside, their show at the Henry Fonda Theater was a faithful re-creation of a brilliant album — right down to hitting the stage with its opening track, "Untitled" — and though the performance was often reserved, the disciplined craftsmanship shone through in a way that illuminated more art than artifice. The prickly twin guitars and ghostly keyboards simmering above alternately plodding and driving bass and drums set the right stage for vocalist Paul Banks' stream-of-consciousness patter. And though he barely acknowledged the audience, Banks really seemed to reach out with the hushed sexual imagery of "Stella Was a Diver," while those giant gulps of air he took belting out "You go stabbing . . . yourself in . . . the neck!" in "Obstacle 1" displayed a conviction that was not lost on those present. Reacting to the performance, one audience member echoed the sentiments of the majority: "I love them, I love them, I love them."

 

The Warlocks proved a thornier subject, saturating the stage with their ELO-size sound. Capping three midtempo, four-chord songs in a row, the band's "Red Rooster" straddled the fine line between maintaining a groove and sliding into monotony. With three guitars swishing away in time, and two drummers playing almost the same patterns, the songs developed a hypnotic quality that made you feel sleepy, sleepy, sleepy, but never quite let you snore.

The impact of Moving Units, filling in for New York's snowbound Stills, was clear the moment they walked off the stage: They played an uncomfortable set to an unknown audience, sounding like they'd shown up unrehearsed (because they had), and — with only average renditions of "X and Y," "Between Us and Them" and "Melodrama" — still proved they're Silver Lake's best new band. (Liam Gowing)

DAVID LINDLEY & WALLY INGRAM, KAKI KING at McCabe's, February 16

David Lindley's virtuoso facility with odd-shaped and stringed foreign boxes is legendary. He also has a sweet, engaging, cartoony voice. Wally Ingram is a locomotive percussionist with full kit plus chimes, blocks and a WWI German army helmet. The two longhaired, Hawaiian-shirted freaks bantered to the crowd's delight and eased through originals such as "Meth Lab Boyfriend," "Catfood Sandwiches" (an odorous ode to backstage chow), "When a Guy Gets Boobs" (for which a fan gifted them with two bras), and, receiving the most adulation by striking an understandable nerve, "Sports Utilities Suck, Hang Up and Drive You Blood Clot."

Lindley stuck to various lap guitars for half the set but also played the oud and saz. He introduced "Lazy Farmer Boy" as a five-string banjo tune, then proceeded to pick it sinuously Middle Eastern on a bouzouki with added frets that enable African scales, after which it morphed into a Scottish reel. Los Chromasomés (as Lindley and Ingram refer to themselves) are reminiscent of that photo of Earth taken from space — only the very far-out can see our planet in its gorgeous totality and ignore man-made borders.

Opener Kaki King is the most striking young musician to emerge in decades. The 23-year-old acoustic-guitar instrumentalist and composer alternates between hard percussive flailing and banging (literally using her ax as a drum) and the fleetest, most fluid right- and left-hand fingers. Sometimes she drapes both hands above her round-backed Ovation and taps the strings over the neck and bridge, improvising passages in altered tunings lower than standard to achieve a booming bottom. The stunned audience went ballistic at her spectacular musicianship. (Michael Simmons)

KITTIE, 18 VISIONS, SWORN ENEMY, DRUG OF CHOICE at the Whisky, February 14

Canadian metal grrrls Kittie bitch-slapped the entire hard-rock community back in 1999 with their savagely catchy grindcore, effectively killing the notion that penises were a prerequisite for quality racket mongering. After the critical and commercial success of their debut, Spit, the band delved deep into the roots of their métier with the follow-up, Oracle, a conservative gloss on the '90s Earache/Relapse catalogs, replete with blast-beats, chugalugging shred and singer Morgan Lander's throat-wrecking bellow. What, you thought they were gonna start penning ballads?

Whatever your preferred aggro style, anyone jonesing for primal noise got a fix tonight, and then some. The ladies were brimming with satanic blood lust, except that Lander's vocals seemed stuck on the she-devil-shriek setting — no doubt due to years of abuse — and never has a damaged diaphragm sounded so good. The absence of pasty, scowling bassist Talena Atfield was keenly felt (the band has been hemorrhaging members since its inception — another story), but Jennifer Arroyo nicely fills her predecessor's custom combat boots, while touring guitarist Jeff Phillips seems tickled pink to be fret-burning with his heroines. Decked out in Axl Rose head wrap, Morgan's nonchalant li'l sis Mercedes hammered her kit as casually as most people eat pasta, even spinning her sticks à la Tommy Lee as the kliegs flickered with her every double kick.

Mosh pits traditionally ooze testosterone, but a Kittie show is the one place where females start shit. This reporter got a swift Doc Marten to the shin as the bouncers dragged away two scrapping hesherettes. After the third encore, a few drunken dudes were screaming for the siblings to kiss each other — however, it's the front woman herself who fed into these adolescents' impulses: "I'll be your Valentine, Mercedes," said Lander, honoring Cupid Day with curious innuendo. Baby, you've come a long way from a Warrant concert. (Andrew Lentz)

 

BEN KWELLER at the Roxy, February 22

It's one thing to launch a solo career from the impetus of a successful band, but quite another to go it alone after fronting a paradigm of major-label misjudgment. So it's a credit to Ben Kweller — who led teenage Texan Nirvana-lite trio Radish (an expensive debacle for Mercury Records in '97) — that he's here for a second sold-out night at the Roxy. Championed by everyone from Dave Matthews to the Strokes, Kweller's been enjoying snowballing acclaim for last year's Beatles-meet-Ben-Folds sophomore offering, Sha Sha, and his cute but classy live show.

Ambling into the Roxy's rapturous embrace, B.K. and his bandmates epitomize anorexic That '70s Show chic. Yet being aligned with the ironically hip tight-T-shirt-and-mop-top brigade is a two-edged sword for Kweller, whose substance-over-style output is in a different league from similarly garbed, eyes-on-the-prize Weezer acolytes. Kweller's appeal emanates from rock & roll's Holy Grail: He understands how to weave a vocal melody through a chord progression, and delivers his gift via ultradynamic, keep-you-guessing arrangements. In tonight's Sha Sha-centric set, B.K. piles on keys-propelled nostalgia ("Falling") and rain-on-the-pain melancholy ("In Other Words"), and apes Lennon & McCartney ("Family Tree") while offering optimistic light at the end of his tunnel vision.

Though his music's mellowed (he's now all of 21 years old), the diminutive Kweller has retained Radish's unaffected joy, unleashing spasms of quivering air-guitar exuberance. And though they've sprouted distortion-dripping road teeth since their last Roxy appearance seven months ago, Kweller's blissfully coherent band still show expert respect for Sha Sha's structural undulations, forever hinting at eruption only to creep into intimate crevices, implying implosion, then billowing out harmony-laden hook fests. Even when alone with his guitar, Kweller sulks and soars with heartfelt efficiency, enunciating and inhabiting every word of his acoustic ode to girlfriend Lizzy, the connection only enhanced by his unspectacular lost-boy timbre.

Ben Kweller is a timeless bard who needs no tag line. After being lumped in with grunge cost him Radish, it'll be a travesty if being tarred with nerd-pop's brush once again glosses over the depth and breadth of his potentially universal appeal. (Paul Rogers)

CAT POWER at the Knitting Factory, February 21

The brilliant new album by Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) contains a lyric that confirms rumors of her crippling stage fright. "Last time I saw you, you were onstage/Hair was wild, your eyes were bright, and you were in a rage/You were swinging your guitar around/Because they wanted to hear that sound/But you didn't want to play/I don't blame you." There are rumors of more acute illnesses — schizophrenia, depression, solipsism — but whatever it is, the condition plays out differently show to show. On good nights, it's said to come across as an intense intimacy that's a wonder to behold: She carries you into her fear, and makes you part of it.

"Are you mad at me?" Marshall asked early in this solo performance. The litany of doubt never stopped. "Can't do it . . ." "Is anything wrong?" "It sounds like shit up here, but that's just me." Taken alone, this would've had an awkward charm, but I'd witnessed her previous L.A. appearances. About three years ago at a solo show at McCabe's Guitar Shop, she plinked out piano keys for almost an hour as if she were unfamiliar with the instrument, the tempo varying between molasses and stasis. During last year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival, performing in Royce Hall to a capacity crowd 1,800 strong, she was so unfocused that she couldn't play a single song start to finish. Last Friday fell somewhere between these extremes of melancholy and mania. Her natural talents enabled the music to rise above her quirks. Her voice is a fabulously neurotic instrument, and live it carried all of the emotional resonance and humanity of which it's capable, bringing to mind names such as Nina Simone and Edith Piaf.

Marshall's technique is suspect, however, and accompanying herself on piano and guitar taxed her skills. One part of me wanted to give her performance the benefit of the doubt and see it as sketches in shadow and light (emphasis on the shadow); the other was lulled into exhaustion. I may just give up on her shows and keep treasuring her records. At one point, Marshall sang her new song "Baby Doll" ("Baby, black black black is all you see/Don't you want to be free?"). I had to wonder if she should listen to those records a bit more herself. (Alec Hanley Bemis)

 

JOHNNY PAYCHECK, 1938-2003

Johnny Paycheck is dead, felled February 18 in Nashville after years of battling emphysema. The original country music rebel and a man with a notorious criminal record (burglary, bad checks, sexual assault, theft, IRS hassles, a 1985 barroom shooting that drew a seven-to-nine-year prison sentence), Paycheck possessed an immeasurable creative genius and a reputation for hell-raising. Born Donald Eugene Lytle on May 31, 1938, in Greenfield, Ohio, he was singing on the street by age 6, left home at 15, cut his first records for Decca as Donny Young in the mid-'50s, and worked for Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and Ray Price; after joining George Jones in 1960, Paycheck played bass and sang harmony on more than 15 albums and countless one-nighters.

Partnered with Nashville operator Aubrey Mayhew in 1966, Paycheck churned out dozens of 45s on their Little Darlin' label. His formula — exquisitely constructed lyrics and fiercely phrased vocal agony — proved irresistible: 18 of his singles made the country Top 10. The deal soured by '69, and Paycheck got lost here in Southern California. After a three-year bender, he was brought back to Nashville and rehabilitated by Epic's Billy Sherrill. In 1978, David Allan Coe's "Take This Job and Shove It" became the biggest record of Paycheck's career. "That one really did it for him," Sherrill said. "I mean, Paycheck was having lunch with Walter Cronkite!"

Paycheck exerted a powerful influence. "Listen to George Jones' records of the '50s, then listen to 'The Race Is On,' and you'll hear that Jones learned his style by listening to Johnny Paycheck," said Mayhew in 1992. An alarming statement, but one impervious to dispute; after Mayhew's argument first appeared in the Weekly, even Nashville's august Journal of Country Music acknowledged Paycheck's influence. Perhaps the single most important — and overlooked — country vocal stylist since 1930s Alabama pioneer Rex Griffin, Paycheck checked out just as his artistry and impact were gaining wider recognition — a final ironic honky-tonk twist in an oft-troubled life.

—Jonny Whiteside


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