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Is It Brilliant?

Photo by Eric Josjo

THE HIVES, SAHARA HOTNIGHTS, THE REIGNING SOUND at Henry Fonda Theater, August 3

After opening sets by the Reigning Sound (fervently rendered rockabilly, rock and soul from Memphis — in other words, joy-inducing) and the Sahara Hotnights (bubblegum glam-punk without hooks — in other words, pointless), the Hives stride onstage like it’s their favorite place to be. And why shouldn’t it? This is where it happens, where an ungainly gang of smart small-town Swedish record-collecting geeks transform into costumed funny guys who’ve hammered and refined a musical idiom into state-of-the-art perfection.

The Hives are the AC/DC or ZZ Top of punk rock — an evolutionary-endpoint-in-fast-motion; we witness it, but they positively revel in it. There’s guitarist Arson, with an arrogant, almost fascistic permanent smirk, blowing on his bandaged trigger fingers after each explosive two-minute song, rocking from foot to foot as if he’s staggered himself; there’s mustachioed bassist Dr. Matt Destruction, simultaneously debonair and overwhelmed; there’s mountainous guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem, shaking it in his own private squint-eyed galaxy, perspiring lakes; and there’s Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, a big-eyed, flawlessly cheekboned skinny lead singer no doubt crafted in some Swedish-government-funded lab of rock. Part singer, part improv comedian, part revivalist preacher, Pelle pauses at one point to ask for some insta-feedback on the show so far: “Is it ‘brilliant’?” he leads like a hammy TV lawyer. “Is it ‘genius’? Is it . . . THE HIVES?” Trick question: It’s all of the above, of course, and things reach a high point when the Hives bring out Reigning Sound leader Greg Cartwright to sing an encore of his “Stop and Think It Over,” originally recorded with the Compulsive Gamblers and the kind of woulda-been-a-hit-in-a-fairer-world song that only record-collecting geeks know about. The Hives, it seems, know how to appreciate others almost as well as they appreciate themselves.

ONEIDA, 400 BLOWS at Spaceland, August 7

Whatever you say about the local trio 400 Blows, they work their asses off and make heads bob in the process. With an octopus-drummer hammering away tirelessly, an Angus Young impressionist running his guitar through a bass amp (to get that fuzzed-out low end) and a demagogue-vocalist who nods with knowing pleasure at his own charisma, these cutups unleash an instantly accessible groove that’s maybe a little too accessible. I wish the singer hadn’t ambled through the crowd toward set’s end in that way-too-easy ploy for engaging a listless crowd. Gotta love the circa-1936 Fascist attire, though, and any punks who name themselves after Truffaut’s best film have to be terrific late-night conversationalists.

Brooklyn’s Oneida gave us an exercise in what self-help gurus might call postponement of gratification. If you’ve heard that blizzard of deconstructed blues Come On Everybody Let’s Rock, the glorious mess that is Each One Teach One or the Krautrock bubblegum of Secret Wars, then the seemingly ham-handed first half of the set wasn’t baffling so much as strategic. “We smell way worse than you all, which means we’re working way harder than you all,” organist-guitarist Fat Bobby shouted, “so shove your neighbor or something — not out of hate but out of love.” (They’re also the wittiest band in garagedom.) But like a slow-release medication starting to kick in, the ride got slipperier and subtler. And with the syncopated keys supplying even more frisson, Oneida started to cook, eventually morphing into a 16th-time dance-punk entity. (Now that split 12-inch they did with Liars makes more sense.) The evening’s parting shot was the kind of validation we club crawlers need more often: “You all spent your Saturday constructively.”

—Andrew Lentz

Rick James, 1948–2004

There’s both poetry and irony in Rick James dying when he did. This year, thanks to Dave Chappelle’s scathingly brilliant sketch-show faux documentary about James’ life, the controversial funkmeister’s name exploded back onto the pop radar, with the catch phrase “I’m Rick James, bitch!” echoing from office water coolers to ghetto street corners. In June, James received an ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award, not just for his own music, but for his writing and production with Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson. His duet with Teena Marie on her critically acclaimed new La Dona reunited him with his most popular and gifted protégé. He recently completed work on a two-disc commemoration of his 25th anniversary as a “successful” musician. (In truth, he’d performed since teenhood.) And just as James’ own name was being revived, his longtime professional rival Prince made his own comeback, with a sold-out tour, and a CD that earned begrudging words of praise from James.

Before James pissed on his legacy with drugs and ho’s, he was a formidable musician. For a minute, with “Super Freak,” he owned the mountaintop, but he was providing the soundtrack to skating-rink hookups and basement-party grinds long before that crossover hit — and for a while after his pop credit had been spent. Best known for reinterpreting the George Clinton funk that had such a huge influence on him, he was also a powerful balladeer, nodding to the silky doo-wop he’d grown up with, and those combined talents birthed “Bustin’ Out,” “You and I,” “Mary Jane,” “Fire and Desire,” “Give It to Me Baby,” “Ebony Eyes” and so many more. Trademark braids, excruciatingly tight leather pants, a woman on each arm, a blunt somewhere nearby, the belief that he was the baddest mofo on the planet, and, always, the music: He was Rick James, bitch.

—Ernest Hardy