Had a Nice Day

Who dat?: DJ Michael spinning heads and records at the Owl's Nest.

Quarter to five on Sunday afternoon and still in bed. Torn between a desire to catch up on my REM sleep and flicking back and forth from the Lakers' playoff game and a presentation of The Shining -- a Nicholson double bill. So profound was my lethargy that I actually contemplated spending the evening being weirded out by that telepathic tyke and staring at Shelley Duvall's face -- a disturbing sign if ever there was one.

Red rum or not, the imaginary friend in my mouth was urging me to get off my ass and go to the New Times Music Showcase. It seemed a logical move, you know, me being music editor and all. But after nine months of preparation and hassles, a string of last-minute cancellations and weeks' worth of radio and TV whoring/promotion, the event itself seemed anticlimactic.

Usually, when I think of music fests I think South by Southwest or CMJ -- travel to cool locales, first-class flights, outrageous per diems and lots and lots of hotel porn. Unfortunately, the most I expected on this day was the free fried food and watered-down beer that my VIP badge would command. Still, duty directed me to Mill Avenue, where I arrived just as the festivities were about to commence.

I headed to Macayo Depot Cantina, where Tolerance was kicking off things in the Hard/Modern Rock category. I encountered a sneering churl who exited the restaurant and muttered, "Tolerance. Shit, put me down for zero Tolerance." Admittedly, the group's chunka-chunka riffing lacked the slightest hint of loose-limbed soul, but the band threw enough pop and funk wrinkles into the mix to keep the margarita-happy patrons satisfied.

Seized by a rush of ambition, I resolved to cram in as much music as possible. I moved on to Hayden Square, where Barrio Latino, a return nominee in the -- yes, you guessed it -- Latino category, had sunstroked masses dancing in the front of the concrete amphitheater. From there it was a quick stop into Balboa Café, where I expected to find Valley blues icon Hans Olson plying his acoustic backwoodsia. Surprisingly, no one was in the place, including Olson, his absence the result of a scheduling mix-up, Ah, logistics.

The effort wasn't entirely in vain, however, as I caught a snippet of an advance copy of the amazing new disc by Texas twangers Slobberbone playing on the club's sound system. (An obvious enticement to catch the group, which will perform at Balboa -- and featured in this section next week. But I digress.)

Crossing the square, I ventured to the one place I had most dreaded going -- the Have a Nice Day Cafe. Part of the charm of the Music Showcase is seeing bands perform in venues that usually don't cater to the live music crowd. And the Have a Nice Day Cafe -- a uniquely American monument to crass commercialism -- seemed the most unlikely of all these.

The place was apparently conceived with the notion of capitalizing on our warm, fuzzy nostalgia for the golden age of all-night disco and coke bashes, right down to the mirror ball, lighted stage and John Travolta cutout on the wall. Unfortunately, the owners weren't quite determined enough to see the motif all the way through and instead decided to toss in a bit of '80s retro-kitsch as well, judging by the Ghostbusters and Terminator posters plastered on the club's Day-Glo walls.

The Have a Nice Day extravaganza began with a trip back to the "Me" Decade courtesy of '60s-styled poppers the Zen Lunatics. Dressed in matching black Beatle suits, circa Revolver (though the length of guitarist Chris Hansen-Orf's hair seems to be heading dangerously into White Albumterritory), the group "got happy" with their own '70s salute, peeling off covers of the "Theme From Laverne & Shirley" and Maxine Nightingale's "Right Back Where We Started From" as well as inspired run-throughs of such Lunatic originals as "Thelma Thorazine" and "Media Sensation."

A 6 o'clock set from industrial outfit Thirteen Miles Down seemed equally out of place, though the environ wasn't quite as disconcerting as the group's lack of a drummer, a shortcoming for which the band compensated with a digital replacement. Front man Matt Timmons dubbed the outfit "three guys and a tape deck."

The most hilarious and incongruous visitors to grace the multicolored Nice Day stage were Valley punk legends the Glass Heroes. The early '90s favorites reunited in December, marking their first performance in five years.

Front man Keith Jackson opened the set with a bit of "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" wonder and a nod to the very Tony Manero decor ("Jesus, I think we're on the set of Saturday Night Fever"). You half-expected Jackson to chuck his Les Paul, grab some paint cans and go barreling down Mill to the strains of "Stayin' Alive."  

Opening with a cover of Chelsea's "I'm on Fire," the group played an incredibly tight set, despite its near half-decade dormancy. It was heartening to see bassist Steve Davis, suffering from hepatitis C ("C Notes," Brian Smith, April 27), at his black-jeaned, tee shirted and tattooed finest, ripping though a barrage of three-chord testaments to the class of '77. Whatever it lacked in punk pretense, the Have a Nice Day Cafe managed the best sound of any of the indoor venues, even with the Heroes' wall of Marshall stacks pushing 11.

Down Mill, the most controversial pop category contestant, Sleepwalker, was playing to an enthusiastic and sizable audience at Fat Tuesday. Alarm bells usually go off whenever I see similarly esoteric combos play, but Sleepwalker avoids the self-serious artist trap with its spare, organic sound -- something due in part to the natural picking talents of steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse. Hearing their set-closing rendition of the country standard "Shenandoah," it occurred to me that the Americana category might be just the place for them next year (just kidding).

Front man Jamal Ruhe made like a clean-shaven Moses when he promised to lead the 200 or so gathered in front of him up to Balboa to see punk entry Reuben's Accomplice and then back down to Tuesday for a set by Chicano Power Revival. It seemed the bulk of those in attendance did just that, judging from Reuben's sizable draw. Or perhaps it's that Reuben's appears live with all the frequency of Halley's Comet.

I caught a few choice moments from rock entrants Van Buren Wheels as they filled the underground atmosphere of Beeloe's with their deliciously retro, organ-fueled sound. From there, it was on to The Bash on Ash, where I saw a final flourish from roots entry Glory Revival. The group was in particularly fine form. Gone is front man Paul Lamb's handlebar mustache -- the true hallmark of trailer chic -- but the band's greasy soul/classic rock wail remains intact, as does the supple Ronson-styled fretting of guitarist Ben Ashley. The swell of the Revivals' versatile horn section was also a highlight, as they instinctively alternated between Memphis, Motown and Muscle Shoals.

The next two hours were a marathon of club-hopping -- the Owl's Nest, where DJ Soloman played to a fairly small crowd, which grew considerably as the night wore on. By the time I returned to the Nest for DJ Michael's 9 p.m. slot, the floor was packed with eager and unlikely dancers. Especially notable was the gentleman grinding in the front, a dead ringer for my eighth-grade science teacher, the last guy you'd ever expect to see carrying a glow stick or sucking on a pacifier. The spectacle called to mind a quote from coke-and-kiddy fiend/environmental crusader Don Henley: "White men dancing -- the greatest entertainment you can see for free."

Back up at Hayden Square, I arrived just in time to catch Sugar High end its set with a rousing version of The Who's "Pinball Wizard." I was thoroughly enjoying the windmill/amp jumping antics onstage when, honest to God, a pair of yahoos standing behind me began arguing over whether the song was by the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. I won't describe the appearance of these two individuals, lest I be accused of engaging in some sort of cultural or social bias. I will, however, note that each of the offending parties was wearing a different version of the ever-haute "Big Johnson" tee shirt series. After about two minutes of their "No, dude, it's Zeppelin," "Bullshit, it's the Beatles" banter, I could take no more and headed for a quiet corner to catch my breath after the first couple of frantic hours.

My respite was shattered when it seemed the ATF had taken over the sound board. While the next act was setting up, the sound crew decided to employ some Branch Davidian strategy by putting on a matchbox 20 disc and hitting the repeat button. The song, an unlistenable bit of radio tripe, got to its third consecutive spin before some merciful soul advanced it to the next track -- a sonic torture equivalent to unanesthetized rectal surgery. (Note to self: Make sure Janet Reno is not asked to work sound at next year's showcase.)

One obvious development with this year's event was that the two big outdoor venues -- the Zia-sponsored Hayden plot and the Virgin Megastage on Fifth -- seemed to steal each other's thunder a bit. Regardless, open-air turns by the Nitpickers, Sistah Blue and roots rockers the Rumble Cats were all equally accomplished.

Similarly, Fat Tuesday enjoyed a number of diverse performances well into the evening, first with Sleepwalker's trancey effort, then later as Chicano Power Revival crammed its 10-piece ensemble into the venue's makeshift stage. The group's eclectic renderings of Latin-flavored originals inspired many in the crowd to abandon their frozen daiquiris, Grain Trains, Pink Fairies or whatever the hell they were drinking and take to the front for some spontaneous shakin'. I was tempted to join in, but quickly remembered my personal vow to give up Latin dance after the twin cinematic disappointments of Salsa and Lambada: The Movie.  

Though they couldn't have been more dissimilar, rap-metal mavens Bionic Jive followed a couple of hours later at the same venue, playing a ferocious set to an equally enthusiastic throng. So intense was the atmosphere that there began a heavy mosh movement up front, replete with stage dives -- something that seemed like a logistical impossibility given Tuesday's cramped quarters. The Jive's MC/hard-core skronk isn't my particular cup o' tea, but there's no denying the guitar chops of group maestro Larry Elyea, or the talents of the rest of the outfit, which has twice as much bounce and funk as any current metal-rap poseurs registering in SoundScan.

Across from Fat Tuesday, the Mill Cue Club was enjoying the benefits of the street side stage as a crowd of curious onlookers jammed the bar and spilled into traffic to listen to Americana up-and-comers Truckers on Speed.

The much-anticipated showcase debut of Radar's FHS project had to be scrapped as the venerable DJ was literally illin' and unable to make the date. Filling FHS' slot was the MC tandem of the Drunken Immortals, who bridged the turntable/live music gap with a hook-heavy mesh that featured a funkier-than-thou backing band. Category heavyweights Cousins of the Wize also offered a memorable Green Room set, which, if one is to believe the rumor mill, may have been their last performance together.

Easily the most adventurous hip-hop undertaking came courtesy of Know Qwestion. MCs Cash and Cappuccino began their set by noting their status as showcase Susan Luccis -- winless despite a streak of four consecutive nominations. The group engaged in a bit of much-needed showmanship to ignite the beer-sodden crowd, and it worked. The highlight of the performance came when the Qwestion brought on local rock noisemakers Size 5 -- forming a collective that sometimes performs under the banner of Collide -- to back them. Pushed by the dichotomy, Cash and Cap proved why they've long been regarded as one of the more progressive exponents of the genre in the Valley, with songs that rise above the rote thuggish braggadocio that colors the material of most mainstream rappers.

As the final hour approached, Tempe gutter punks the Impossibles jarred the somewhat staid crowd at the Fifth and Maple compound with their four-to-the-floor update of lovable Limey losers like 999 and the Vibrators. The group's onstage quippage earned them the coveted "Cheeky Monkey" award with Rob Impossible's discomforting suggestion: "People, our offer to give blowjobs is serious. Since we don't have any groupies, we figured we'd become ones."

Not quite that desperate, I proceed back to the Bash to catch the last couple of songs of Flathead's first performance in nearly five months. The rig-rockers' showcase set was easily the most genuine outpouring of affection/mayhem of the whole event, as the near-capacity crowd egged guitarist Greg Swanholm -- out with a hand injury since January -- and the freshly shaved heads of bassist Kevin Daly and Vince Ramirez to heights of chicken pickin' delight. The night ended with the group playing an unscheduled two-song encore of "Lordy Mercy" and Johnny Cash's "Luther Played the Boogie-Woogie." Even that wasn't enough to sate the spectators, who flung beer bottles and trash onstage as a sign of their unyielding appreciation.

Post-Showcase found Hayden Square packed with eager bodies swaying to the engaging two-tones of New York ska-punks the Slackers. After a brief interlude, I made a beeline back to the Virgin Megastage, where showcase headliners the Flys were making enjoyably obnoxious with some blue stage banter. Upon passing the VIP area, I spied my New Times colleague Brian Smith, fresh off his Arizona Press Club victory as feature columnist of the year, standing on a table, Foster's oil can in hand with fist raised, shouting, "I am the greatest writer in the world." Smith began haranguing me, "You there, Mehr, come, kiss the hem of my black leotard -- worship at my altar, you miserable little hack." As off-putting as the encounter was, I dutifully shuffled past him and into the Flys mosh pit for a brief melee with some antediluvian freaks.

I had exhausted my second, third and fourth winds and was eager to call it a night. I returned home and flipped on the box in time to catch an encore showing of The Shining. Watching it, I began to sympathize with Nicholson's cabin-fevered caretaker. A day of cramped clubs and the incessant cacophony of two dozen musical styles will do as much to most people's heads. And then I realized how much luckier I was than old Jack. At least I had 50 fine bands to keep me company instead of Shelley Duvall and that freaky-looking kid.

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