The Zeros, The Muffs
See also: Our interview with Javier Escovedo
Even though the Zeros were born at the dawn of the punk era in 1976 and the Muffs didn't start until the depths of the grunge scene 15 years later, they couldn't have been more perfectly billed last night at the Troubadour.
Both bands play a form of punk rock — which is actually just rock & roll, when you get down to it — that's not necessarily currently in fashion but which has never really gone out of style. Although each group layers poppy melodies over slam-bang chords, one hesitates to describe the Muffs and the Zeros as pop-punk, if only to separate them from the adenoidal yelping of more contrived outfits like Green Day and Blink-182. Instead, the two bands are more in the spirit of the Ramones, taking the fun, simple hooks of '60s garage rockers like the Standells and the Kinks and then speeding them up with a remorseless punk rock power.
The Muffs were an anomaly when they formed in Southern California in 1991. At a time when rock (which should never be confused with good ol' rock & roll) was lurching into the testosterone-steeped, lugubrious bellowing of grunge, the Muffs were dishing out short, catchy two-minute anthems, with lead singer Kim Shattuck slyly burying her most winsome melodies under a layer of fuzzed-out guitars. The Muffs rocked just as hard as the boys, albeit with a gloriously sloppy punk intensity, but they also had the saving grace of wit — and they had too short of an attention span to stretch their concise bubblegum tunes into torturous grunge epics.
You don't want to piss off Kim Shattuck. Although the singer-guitarist was charming at the Troubadour, joking with fans and wearing a lacy white baby-doll dress, she has a special talent for writing some of the most sarcastic and cutting poison-pen lyrics and insult songs this side of her hero Ray Davies (and all of it disguised further by her seemingly perky pop melodies).
The Muffs' set included early classics like “Lucky Guy,” with its propulsive, compulsive descending riff, and “I Need You,” where Shattuck's simple Creedence Clearwater-style arpeggio soon morphed into a swirling orgy of feedback and lovelorn desperation. Even better, the local trio, who only perform live every few years, debuted several new songs from the Muffs' long-delayed album, a project that Shattuck claimed she was already tired of waiting for. But she was in such a good mood that she even cheerfully heeded the desperate request of several squealing young fans and changed the set list to add a rendition of the semi-obscurity “Oh Nina” (from the Muffs' 1995 album, Blonder & Blonder).
The new tunes made an immediate impression, pushed along by bassist Ronnie Barnett, who serves as the lanky straight man whenever Shattuck needs someone to abuse. Former Redd Kross drummer Roy McDonald is often compared to Keith Moon, but his relentlessly explosive fills were actually much more solid and controlled than the late Who drummer's. McDonald and Barnett are a major reason why Shattuck's love songs never come off as wimpy — that and the fact that she always has her poor, overdriven guitar turned up to 11. Many of Shattuck's songs were crowned last night by her trademark howl — a feral, scarifying scream that puts some genuine menace into her otherwise fizzy tunes, while also evoking her former bandmate in the Pandoras, the late, great hell-raiser Paula Pierce.
Headliners the Zeros swaggered onstage dressed all in black, foreshadowing their cover of the Standells' “Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White,” which arrived midset. Longtime member Robert Lopez (who's better known in his Mex-centric, Elvis-savaging persona El Vez) was missing in action last night, replaced without explanation by singer Javier Escovedo's younger brother Mario (who used to front San Diego hard rockers the Dragons). Lopez was missed, but Mario Escovedo gave the Zeros added power on guitar, making the quartet sound heavier than ever.
Seeing Javier and Mario onstage together emphasized yet again how prolific and talented the Escovedo clan is — one almost expected to see their niece Sheila E. jump onstage and pound out some percussion, although, stylistically, a potential visit from their brother (and former punk rock icon with the Nuns) Alejandro Escovedo might make more sense musically.
Javier and founding bassist Hector Penalosa switched off on lead vocals on riotous originals like “Wimp,” “Don't Push Me Around” and “Handgrenade Heart,” as well as a sassy and rollicking version of the New York Dolls' “Chatterbox.” The Dolls' late guitarist Johnny Thunders remains an obvious sonic and visual inspiration for the Zeros, but the Chula Vista quartet still managed to make the song their own while remaining faithful to the original.
Kim Shattuck returned to the stage to join the Zeros for a rendition of “Beat Your Heart Out,” which the Muffs covered early in their career. It appeared from the set list that the Zeros intended to play a longer show, with other originals like “Right Now” and “Wild Weekend” and such covers as “Pipeline,” but those tracks were left out, and the set seemed to fly by in less than an hour.
Considering how long both bands have been around, one might assume the concert was merely a nostalgic punk blast from the past, but the immediacy and drive of most of these songs remain fresh, especially since many of these virtual classics have never been heard by the mainstream rock world. It's also encouraging that both bands are working on new material, which perhaps explains why the near-capacity crowd was an even mix of old-school punks and young kids seeing the groups for the first time. Young or old, everyone's ears were ringing madly by the time the Zeros and the Muffs were done pounding on their axes.
Set list below.