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The Ettes and Tulsa Skull Swingers - The Echo - 8-25-11

The Ettes' Coco Hames
The Ettes' Coco Hames
Falling James

The Ettes, Tulsa Skull Swingers

The Echo

8-25-11

Better Than . . . Attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

It's understandable that Angeleno music fans might think of the Ettes as the band that got away. There was a time early in the garage-pop trio's career when they were based here in Los Angeles, but that was before they relocated to places like London and Nashville and started working with such producers as the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and White Stripes helmsman Liam Watson and touring with stellar pals the Kings of Leon and the Dead Weather.

Thursday night's show was somewhat of a triumphant homecoming for the Ettes. When they formed in L.A. earlier this decade, they were a struggling garage band toiling in half-empty clubs in front of a dozen diehard fans. Early releases on labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry helped the group attain a certain cachet in underground punk circles, but the Ettes eventually left town for greener pastures.

Coco Hames gets by with a little help from her fans.
Coco Hames gets by with a little help from her fans.
Falling James

It was only after they made their mark elsewhere that the Ettes began to have a strong draw here. There was a buzz of anticipation from the large crowd at the Echo last night, a sense of momentum that kept mounting until the black-clad trio finally emerged from the shadows at the side of the club's small stage. Everyone was feeling great -- until the band actually started playing.

Something felt strangely off during the very first song, "Reputation," a sultry slice of primal fuzz-pop from the Ettes' 2006 debut full-length album, Eat the Dust. Drummer Poni Silver bashed away at her cymbals with trademark zeal, while Jem Cohen held things together with his muscular bass lines, but Coco Hames' guitar was missing, and her voice sounded weak and faraway, as if she'd fallen down the bottom of a well.

The Ettes
The Ettes

Have you ever been in a small earthquake that creeps up on you so slowly that you feel seasick and disoriented at first? It's as if your body can't comprehend that the floor is rising and falling and the walls are buckling, so it compensates for this unexpected defiance of the laws of physics by compelling you to think that you're merely dizzy and the outside world is just fine. Well, that's how it felt at the Echo. At first, fans thought that there must be something wrong with the mix -- until they noticed Hames bobbing and weaving precariously back and forth, looking unsteady on her feet.

The normally cool and serene Hames tried to sing, but she was usually too far from the microphone. She didn't even bother to strum her guitar, which hung loosely at her hip as she tried to find her bearings. Finally, gravity became too strong for her, and she tumbled drunkenly over backwards before a concerned fan jumped onstage and helped her back to her feet. Hames gamely tried to keep playing and actually managed to play the guitar chords on the next two or three songs, including the ironically titled "Excuses," from the Ettes' latest album, Wicked Will. The singer fell down a few more times, with the fan lifting her to her feet and even holding her guitar in place while Hames attempted to sing.

The Ettes
The Ettes

Her heat-seeking voice, which is normally so radiant and searing like a postmodern version of her idol Nancy Sinatra, felt wan and distant at the Echo. Between songs, Hames chided the crowd for not giving it up more for hard-working drummer Silver, who seemed embarrassed by the attention. Longtime fans looked incredulously at each other. Was this part of the act? They assured each other that they had never seen Hames wasted like this in the past, that this Amy Winehouse-like spectacle was something new and unexpected. (Here's some video of the proceedings.)

And yet there was something oddly endearing about seeing Hames in such a wild, unfocused state. Luckily, she wasn't a mean or embarrassing drunk, and she was aware enough of her surroundings and what was going on to sheepishly admit that perhaps she'd had a few too many margaritas earlier in the evening, the result of her excitement at being back in her old hometown. Finally, after she barely made it through the next song, Cohen waved his arms and stopped the show, leading Hames from the stage.

The closing band of the night, Tulsa Skull Swingers, were rushed onstage to fill the gap after the Ettes' sudden exit. They were a local swamp-rock quartet of big, scary guys wearing skull and devil masks. They stomped through a leering, ominous set of trashy, Cramps-style surf-roots tunes, and they assured the audience that the Ettes would be back onstage soon after Hames had a chance to sober up.

Tulsa Skull Swingers
Tulsa Skull Swingers
Falling James

Strangely enough, the crowd stuck around loyally, even though the Ettes never did return to finish their set. Bemused fans were clearly disappointed that Hames was so uncharacteristically out of it, even as they admitted that, 10 years from now, they'd be bragging that they'd witnessed such a bizarre Germs-like piece of Dionysian performance art. Even at her most soused, Hames was still an appealingly charismatic performer onstage, and Cohen and Silver managed to give enough glimpses of the band's distinctive sound that the catchy melodies of "Reputation" and "Excuses" burrowed deeply into the brain long after the night had ended.

Personal Bias: It was enough to make me want to start drinking again.

Overheard in the Crowd: "I never knew that Coco was such a fan of Janis Joplin!"

Random Notebook Dump: Nothing. The set was over so quick, there wasn't much time to note much of anything.