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The Beat That Kills

Photo by Greg Q.

At a swanky old hotel in Hollywood, Brian Waters eases himself into a Jacuzzi. Sweat and hair cling to the gold chain looped around his neck. The sun melts behind him as he grins and tips back a Scotch on the rocks. Here, the sly singer and guitarist of the Los Angeles garage trio the Flash Express exudes sex appeal like a blaxploitation flick dipped in cream. Onstage, he’s a hopped-up locomotive, screaming into his Telecaster pickups, luring women in the audience and shaking his God-given white ass.

Waters, bassist Tommy Branch (ex–Small Stone) and drummer Lance Porter don’t just play the blues, they ravage it. Heat measures soul, and this band aims to burn your trousers off. “If you’re not there to have fun, you’ve wasted the $5 you paid to get in the door,” says Waters. “Stay home and watch TV. I don’t care if you got nice clothes on. I don’t care if you got your hair just right that day, ’cause I’m gonna mess it up.”

At Spaceland just a few days earlier, Waters did just that. He fell to the floor like James Brown, broke out into handclaps and Mick Jagger rooster thrusts, and played the loudest, sweetest, greasiest wah-wah solos this side of a Southern barbecue. Branch, the slender, “strong, silent” one, and Porter, whose floppy black hair and expert flailing resemble Keith Moon, kept the set tight and sharp.

Obvious comparisons of the Flash Express to fellow in-your-face rock practitioners the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion fall flat. Waters, who loves hip-hop (recently, Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and R. Kelly’s “Ignition”) and the Neptunes (“the Phil Spectors of our time”) as well as the Stooges and Led Zeppelin, harbors no wish to fill anyone’s shoes, and favors personality over pretense. Last November, the band self-released their MC5-worthy debut, Introducing the Dynamite Sound of the Flash Express. Set for U.K. release in April on Excited Records, the album ricochets from the fantastic ’60s feedback scorchers “Movin It” and “The Beat That Kills” to the sausage-thick grind of “Feel These Blues” and a rockabilly-tinged cover of Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 rap “The Message.” As Branch’s distorted bass pumps over Waters’ chest-heaving licks, the sky-high manifesto “Who Stole the Soul?” praises Outkast while ragging on other modern-day groups: “What’s up with the music? Baby, what’s up with you?/How in the hell you expect me to get down to Blink-182?”

 

Waters, who moved from Miami to L.A. in 1988, first learned how to play guitar on a $50 Sears solid-body, a gift for his 19th birthday. A biker neighbor taught him 12-bar blues, and his lifelong obsession with bluesmen George Thorogood and Howlin’ Wolf commenced. Later involvement with charismatic punk rockers the Comatones led to the formation of the Angeleno band the Countdowns, and Waters’ brother Craig (now with Cody Chestnutt) handed his drum reins to Porter.

For years, the Countdowns backed up rowdy R&B howler Andre Williams, and they toured endlessly. “I like guys who sing about booze in the same way they sing about Jesus,” Waters deadpans. In 2000, sans Williams and with the affable Branch on bass, the Flash Express launched themselves onto the L.A. scene. Named after “Flash,” a flamboyant breakdancer from Waters’ high school, as well as the ’70s soul/funk bands the BT Express and the Ohio Express, the band designated itself “the world’s fastest R&B band!”

The Flash Express take their raw music to the people, whether the people like it or not. Waters prefers parties to clubs, the dirty floor of Hollywood’s Juvee skateboard shop to big stages, kids who “get down” versus snobbish voyeurs. And Waters, the consummate bluesman, is smooth enough not to force your conversion. “If you’re not going to do it with me, then I’m gonna do it by myself, baby, but it’s gonna get done. Ya know what I mean?”

The Flash Express play the Troubadour on Friday, January 30.


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