Abby Travis, Tony Clifton, Alain Johannes
Better Than . . . going to the circus.
Abby Travis sure knows how to throw a party. She's seemingly ubiquitous as an in-demand bassist, backing everyone from Masters of Reality, KMFDM and Vanessa Paradis to Beck, Eagles of Death Metal and Spinal Tap, but the Los Angeles native performs her own music so rarely that, when she does play, each concert feels more like an event than a gig.
Last night's show at the Dragonfly was no exception, as Travis celebrated her latest solo album IV with a barrage of visual and mental distractions and stimuli. Not the least of which was the ungainly but stunning frock of black feathers she sported when she first strutted onstage.
“It's a cool dress, but I can't see shit!” Travis told the crowd filling the dark dance floor. The monster feather boa threatened to swallow her up as she gamely belted out the opening tune, the glittery power-pop kiss-off “One Hit Wonder.” The song's sugary melodies were countered by bittersweet lyrics and the sure-handed Freedom Rock drive of her ace backup band. New guitarist Fran Capitanelli effortlessly unspooled intricate curlicues of Brian May-style leads, while the local underground pop maven Probyn Gregory pumped up the exuberance with brassy trumpet exhortations.
Guest singer Kristi Callan, who used to front the '80s Paisley Underground band Wednesday Week and currently roots around with Dime Box Band, was initially unrecognizable in a long dark red wig and a makeup makeover by Travis, who slathered her with sparkling canary-yellow eye shadow and luridly ultra-thick black eyeliner. Callan's unerring harmonies added another layer of frosting to Travis' already-sumptuous arrangements.
“I don't think I can last one more song in this dress, which is embarrassing to say with my drag-queen friends here,” Travis confessed. She shrugged off her swarm of feathers, revealing the formal floor-length black gown she was wearing underneath, as her band set up the stately intro to the glam-rock bonbon “Lulu.” Travis' honeyed voice was rich and liquid-y and always strong, even as she simultaneously launched soaring bass lines and locked into tight rhythms with former Bullet LaVolta drummer Todd Philips.
“I'm going to break down and do some cabaret,” Travis said a few songs later, dedicating the ballad “Toast to the Unappreciated” to the lighting person, her merch guy and her dad. Most of the group stepped away for a moment, leaving behind keyboardist Jebin Bruni (Public Image, Fiona Apple), who adorned Travis' spare words with smart, lovely embellishments.
For all of her hard-rock prowess and her punk rock past in the Lovedolls, she's especially beguiling in subdued, intimate settings like this, but Travis sang only one ballad. Instead, the mood quickly changed with the arrival of the first of the night's surprise guests, the semi-fictional comedian Tony Clifton.
“I'm used to big rooms in Vegas, not these little shitholes,” he declared, before bellowing out a rude version of the Frank Sinatra standard “Summer Wind.” At first, Clifton was funny when he aggressively hectored the crowd, coming off as the asshole lounge-lizard carnival barker at Travis' freaky sideshow. But soon his stupid Polish jokes degenerated into even viler racist and sexist jokes — and there wasn't some cosmic punch line or absurd performance-art twist by the real Andy Kaufman to bail him out. Much of the humor, in fact, came from his stripper sidekick Ashton, who mugged in mock despair behind his back. It probably didn't hurt that she slipped out of her fishnets and black chiffon blouse and did a quick striptease, quelling some of the audience's annoyance and diverting attention momentarily from Clifton.
It says a lot for Travis' confidence and the strength of her new songs from IV that she didn't mind sharing the spotlight or letting the show take such an apparently unexpected digression. If anything, the set continued with even more momentum once Travis took the microphone back. Songs like “Rosetta” and “Lightning Squared” were much more forceful live, and the latter was an exhilarating climax to the main set.
Travis and her band encored with another new pop gem, “Pretender,” a surging rush of airy vocals and beeping guitars. Then things got strange. Thelonious Monster's Zander Schloss came out to join the group as a guest guitarist. Tony Clifton also returned, ranting about Whitney Houston and Glen “Fucking” Campbell as an introduction to his rambunctious version of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Ashton and another dancer pranced their way merrily back and forth across the stage, riding stick horses and wearing cowboy hats (and little else).
All of the sudden, Clifton would pretend to get mad, stop the band and shout at the bewildered dancers to get off the stage. Then he'd change his mind and start the song all over again. Over and over. Dozens of times. It was either a brilliant piece of performance art or more proof that comedians and rock & roll don't mix.
Travis' musicians were game and started up at the drop of a hat each time. Callan kept chiming away steadfastly like a bird, staying in character and adding an unsettling air of melodiousness and country-rock authenticity to Clifton's ragged crooning. The dancing cowgirls hopped on and off the stage at each of his commands, their bumps and grinds getting comically slower and wearier — until it became clear that they really were tired.
Like a machine, the band couldn't stop. Eventually, though, Travis started snaking out the foreboding descending bass riff to the Stooges' “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and the group fell in behind her. The sinister if overplayed song sounded especially chilling with her sultry intonations, but Travis purred only a few lines before handing the mic to former SST Records stalwart Jordan Schwartz, who had a memorable turn as Bruce Springsteen pissing on the flag in the low-budget mid-'80s film parody Love Dolls Superstar.
The improvised Stooges cover was a fittingly apocalyptic finale for a night that was more of a spectacle than a show. It's also to Travis' credit that she dared to follow a solo opening set by the influential post-punk musician Alain Johannes, who strummed blurry chords on a boxy guitar-like instrument of his own invention. His mournful keening sounded more traditional than the adventurous and arty music he used to make with What Is This? and Eleven, but his best moments pierced the jaded nightclub air with something that felt like real emotion.
Personal bias: “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a great song, but, sometime between the 20th and the 30th false ending, even I was getting mutinous.
Overheard in the crowd: “I believe that's the first time I've ever heard a medley of 'Rhinestone Cowboy' and 'I Wanna Be Your Dog.'”
Random notebook dump: Abby Travis understands the importance of carny tricks like wearing too much glitter and electric lavender-purple eye shadow.