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Sugar 'n' Spikes

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.

Clean Needles Now benefit with BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE, DUANE PETERS AND THE HUNNS, WAYNE KRAMER, FEATHERWOOD JUNCTION at the Garage, January 11

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.  

Not to say that the musicianship of the band was poor or the tunes weren't well-rehearsed. The show was actually quite good, the vocals especially strong. But the material — songs with names like "Kill Everyone" and "(I Will) Survive" — was as uninspired and predictable as a Ron Popeil infomercial, giving a first-rate band all the luster of cubic zirconium. Not that the new generation of victims unfamiliar with the endless recycling of '70s rock idioms who packed the Viper seemed to mind, alternately bobbing and banging their heads, depending on which classic-rock formula was being ripped off at the moment.

And why shouldn't they? The industry doesn't put out lowest-common-denominator music for nothing. Formula guarantees income. And the great cost of touring with a baby grand piano in tow should give some indication of the fat load of money it's looking to recoup from this band. Stargunn are already comfortably ensconced in the proverbial green room of stardom, preparing for their 15 minutes of fame, ready to suck. (Liam Gowing)

RAY MAKERS, TOMMI SUNSHINE at the Echo, January 11

Who needs downtown lofts when the swingin'est can't-shut-'em-down house parties are happening on East Sunset Boulevard? Ray Makers took the stage with the caveatlike announcement "We're gonna play some stuff you all know and some other stuff you probably don't care about." While their current CD, Phantom Third Channel (Transistor), is sprightly and minimal, the duo's live act is a much bouncier, MC-driven affair soaked through with college-radio-jacking boom-bap and spooky theremin quivers courtesy of Seksu Roba's Kevin Lee. "They're a little too New York for me," my electroclash-expert friend said, but she was speaking strictly sartorially (hey, those pimp threads are pretty damn groovy). Before launching into their finale, an early Cure tune ("I'm a Cult Hero"), Marcus glumly declared, "This is one of the songs Robert Smith wrote before he became a fat drunk."

With zero fanfare and no distracting video projections, Chicago's Tommi Sunshine dashed club kids' expectations right out of the gate with an intoxicating revamp of Dark Side of the Moon-era Floyd that went on with Floyd-like endurance — which seems to be the point. "He plays whatever the fuck he wants," Sunshine's booking agent said, "not what people expect." More disjointed than a straight mix but without the lookit-me obnoxiousness of a mash-up, Sunshine is as affectionate toward his source material as he is derisive of it. Tonight he careened from Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" to Duran Duran's "Planet Earth" to Black Flag's "TV Party" to Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran" to Motley Crue's "Looks That Kill" with no apparent logic, yet some sort of knowing pop-culture critique emerged from the connect-the-dots rampage. "Sunshine throws some electro in there to cater to the crowd," Ray Makers' Marcus said, "but really, this is just rock." With kids pogoing a full 10 minutes after the lights went on, he's damn right it was. (Andrew Lentz)

SILKWORM, CONSONANT, STRAIGHT TO VIDEO at the Knitting Factory, January 9

The night resembles a musical puzzle — all these oddly shaped bands and motifs that suggest completion yet never quite mesh. On the one hand we have Consonant front man Clint Conley, AWOL since Mission of Burma did the disappear. On the other we have Silkworm, who've been very much present over the last decade but never particularly visible, lost in the Sturm und Drang of indie rock.

Where Silkworm's only been pared down over the years, Conley's beefed up his new band with members of Come, Fuzzy and Bedhead. Call them three more pieces scattered across the table. Unfortunately, only Chris Brokaw (guitar) makes a real contribution. His spidery phrasings both complement and impair Consonant's music; even as the phrasings visibly shimmer, the songs themselves recede, like a web we admire but are never snared in. Consonant plays earnestly and with some power, but it feels nothing like deliverance.

Silkworm's greatest strength lies in the attention Steve Albini has lavished on them. Live, the reasons for this attention are visible, while at the same time we miss the viscera of those recordings. Michael Dahlquist is a drummer who doesn't so much play as assault his instrument, lending the expansive guitar noodling much-needed force. Yet here too we admire a facet instead of the gem; the strength of the rhythm section exposes the songs' essential mediocrity. There's little to distinguish Silkworm from the pack of kind of sad/kind of stumbling. Still, Silkworm's time served serves them well; their greatest moment is a requested and eventually remembered version of "That's Entertainment." Like any good inmate, they've got their shtick down; they entertain even if they do little more.  

Surprisingly, openers Straight to Video make the most convincing statement. They play with gray-haired denim fury, delivering the most bombs-away rock this side of Robert Pollard. (Russel Swensen)

BOOKS ON TAPE, TENDER BUTTONS, XIU XIU, LYBTHTH at the Smell, January 11

This third installment of the "Neon Hates You" series was an eclectic mix, with an acoustic performance by Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu and a lot of electronic bands whose names you can't pronounce, and a few that you can.

The Smell's communal atmosphere complements a wide variety of music. One-man project Lybthth might seem a bit alien at any other venue, but at the Smell this space-themed oddity fits right in. Hooded like the Grim Reaper and playing a MIDI drum kit, front man Qrqyt Ixoteptek had varied moments of fluidity but was a bit too cacophonous overall. The highlight of the smoky evening was Books on Tape, whose Todd Drootin is the Amadeus of electronic music in Los Angeles. Erratic yet precise, Drootin pulled off a crowd-pleasing set while heavily intoxicated, bobbing around onstage, spasmodically attacking the equipment, and stopping every now and then for self-deprecating jokes. When someone in the audience shouted, "Hey, we need more bass, we're from the ghetto!" Drootin was more than happy to comply, cranking up the beats louder than a souped-up Honda Civic.

Next in line were Tender Buttons, whose hybrid/conceptual though awfully obscure take on electroclash seemed a bit pretentious. Vocalist Zack Wentz and his wife, K8, appeared content making music for the minority, so whatever . . . (Tatiana Simonian)


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