“I just wanted to have a fun party, a cool party,” Liquid Kitty co-owner Dave Childs said Sunday evening after the final edition of the Punk Rock BBQ at the West L.A. bar. When he started the series of afternoon shows in 2002, he was looking for a place where his friends’ bands could stretch out freely in an unpretentious environment — as well as, admittedly, a venue where his own groups could perform.
Many neighborhood bars have live music, but few, if any, have offered as many free concerts by influential, and often historic, local punk bands on a regular basis as Liquid Kitty. Actually, the term Punk Rock BBQ has always been a bit of a misnomer, as Sunday’s finale featured a typically disparate assortment of groups that ranged widely from punk and power pop to surf, art funk, hard rock and jazz, including Childs’ band Lawndale, who often traversed these and other genres within the space of a single instrumental.
After it was all over, Childs appeared relieved and happy. “Nobody left early,” he smiled. He wasn’t kidding. At times, especially during late-afternoon sets by Mike Watt & the Missingmen and Saccharine Trust, Liquid Kitty was so packed that many fans couldn’t get inside the bar and hung out instead on the front sidewalk.
Although Childs hopes to continue the Punk Rock BBQ at other venues, he was sad that Liquid Kitty would be shutting down at the end of this month after losing its lease. The martini bar, which opened in 1996, fell victim to the changing economy and rising property values on the Westside. Liquid Kitty still has a handful of DJ nights and blues, roots and jazz combos booked this month before closing its doors for the last time on Wednesday, August 31. But the Punk Rock BBQ was the club’s unofficial goodbye.
In keeping with the barbecue’s freewheeling spirit, Backbiter were added to the bill at the last minute, going on third after early sets by Descendents tribute band Defendents and Highland Park’s Somos Mysteriosos. Backbiter are in many ways this city’s best and purest hard-rock band. The local power trio are inspired by all the usual garage and punk suspects (The Dictators, The Stooges, The Dead Boys), but they play with an unrelenting intensity that feels more like The Who, circa Live at Leeds. Singer-guitarist Jonathan Hall and bassist Heath Seifert write classic rock–style anthems that would likely sound even more monumental in stadiums and arenas than in the tiny dives they usually play.
Sunday afternoon, Backbiter started off strong with several of their own songs. “Flying” was both heavy and euphoric, although Hall’s distinctively fluttery hammer-on guitar lick didn’t always cut through the crush of Seifert’s and drummer-singer Bob Lee's booming rhythms. “Get Together” was more of a slow blues, but it was nonetheless pounded out with pulverizing hard-rock thunder as Hall’s guitar erupted in the doom-ridden spaces and his pleading voice shrieked like the unhappy lovechild of Janis Joplin and Roky Erickson.
As usually happens during their sets, Backbiter’s inner fan took over, and the group devoted the second half of their set to covers, starting with Lee’s energetic, earnestly sung remake of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” The short set closed with an unusual medley that began with a throttling remake of The 13th Floor Elevators’ psychedelic rave-up “Reverberation,” then morphed unexpectedly into a punchy take on The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” and culminated with a slam-bang obliteration of Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69.”
Dave Childs and his band mates in Lawndale followed, setting up their equipment on Liquid Kitty’s stage-less floor, just inches away from the milling crowd. As guitarists Steve Housden and Jack Skelley rampaged through their set, artist Norton Wisdom painted behind them, slapping watery black images onto a large, illuminated plastic canvas. After a few tunes, Wisdom would wipe away the image and start another ephemeral painting.
Lawndale are ostensibly a surf-music group, but their set was all over the musical map. A straightforward revival of Dave Brubeck’s jazz standard “Take Five” somehow evolved into a funky, Hendrix-y remake of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” while the instrumental “Wingtips” was cleverly sliced with quotations from Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”
The crowd really poured into the club for Mike Watt & the Missingmen, filling every remaining inch of space in the small room. As the trio got going, Wisdom continued with a new lavender-tinted painting of a man in black horn-rimmed glasses who resembled Watt. The former Minutemen bassist had a fuller, deeper tone than usual, and he was deftly accompanied by drummer Raul Morales and guitarist Tom Watson (Overpass, Slovenly). Watson actually did most of the singing, trading off lead vocals at times with Watt during a nonstop set of Minutemen covers.
You could hardly call the performance nostalgic, however, since the Minutemen’s angular condensations of punk and funk still sound shockingly unusual today. Morales and Watson were tight and alert, with the guitarist cutting and pasting short, serrated riffs neatly into place while shouting out the late D. Boon’s timeless scraps of poetry. If anything, Boon’s succinct, fortune-cookie warnings in such songs as “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost,” “The Punch Line” and “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs” took on even more relevance in these uncertain and divisive political times. Adding to the camaraderie, Backbiter’s Lee howled guest vocals on “Paranoid Chant.”
“I’m going back to Pedro,” hollered a triumphant Watt, dressed in his trademark gray-and-white plaid flannel shirt, his long sleeves still unrolled despite the heat.
“We’re here to do our album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Jack Brewer grandly announced, before plunging into a defiantly raucous performance of Saccharine Trust’s 1981 EP, Paganicons. Frontman Brewer and longtime guitarist Joe Baiza were joined by the EP’s original rhythm section, bassist Earl Liberty and drummer Rob Holzman. Saccharine Trust would ramble on with more jazzily expansive albums in the mid-’80s, notably Surviving You Always and We Became Snakes, but Paganicons captures that brief moment in time when Brewer’s febrile, allusive poetry and ongoing conversations with God and other deities were confined within tight punk-pop song structures. You could see why Kurt Cobain once described the EP as one of his favorite releases. The songs had catchy, Ramones-style choruses but were also richly infused with Brewer’s insolently rude yet literary poetry.
With Saccharine Trust, even the sullen, sludgy riffs were contrarian, as Baiza’s ice-pick guitar doubled back and forth stubbornly before pushing forward in unexpected directions. “I Am Right” was once covered by Sonic Youth, but the reunited Saccharine Trust restored the song’s proper balance of volume and menace. Brewer introduced “We Don’t Need Freedom” as “our new national anthem” in sarcastic reference to Donald Trump. The short set closed with a rambunctious version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” although Baiza’s guitar was too muted in the mix.
“We’re woefully unprepared,” Joe Nolte insisted before The Last’s closing set, but no one believed him. The 60-year-old singer-guitarist has led numerous incarnations of the South Bay band since the mid-1970s, and he was in fine form Sunday evening, despite having suffered a stroke nearly two years ago. “I’ve got to teach this guitar more than one note,” Nolte joked humbly while clutching his trademark black Rickenbacker.
In the late ’70s, The Last were one of the few bands who could credibly cross over from the power-pop scene into the punk underground, and at one point it seemed like they were poised for mainstream success. Nolte used to live at the infamous Hermosa Beach punk hangout the Church, and he was once considered for the role as lead singer of Black Flag. The late Jeffrey Lee Pierce frequently joined The Last onstage in the late-’70s and enthusiastically knocked over all the microphones during shambolic guest-star appearances in the days before The Gun Club started performing live.
But Nolte was and is an incurable pop romantic, which explains how The Last were able to influence pure pop acts like The Three O’Clock and The Bangles as well as more aggressive punk bands, such as The Urinals and The Descendents. At Liquid Kitty, Joe and his keyboardist-brother Mike sentimentally harmonized on such Beach Boys–style homages as “Every Summer Day” and the quintessential L.A. love letter “Looking at You” (in which Joe steadfastly declared, “I made up my mind on the freeway”). But the Nolte brothers also slammed into proto-punk nuggets “Go Away Girl” and “Slavedriver,” as well as the lost track “Difference,” which is simultaneously a teary love song and a fiery punk ballad. “The only killers on the streets are the police,” Joe Nolte raged, recalling not only the death of an old affair but also the end of the early punk scene’s innocence.
Afterward, longtime regulars milled around and lamented Liquid Kitty’s upcoming closure. “It’s like a backyard barbecue, and all your friends are playing,” marveled Backbiter’s Jonathan Hall. “It just happens that our friends’ bands are all awesome.”