The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black
June 19, 1994
Maybe it was when the topless woman with the purple body paint, blacked-out teeth and twisted fright wig stood on her head with her back to the audience and her legs spread, and a smaller, chubby girl painted orange and dressed as some kind of mutant bee came up behind her and began taking eggs from a huge Easter basket, displaying them to the audience at arms' length and then smashing them into the crack of the other woman's butt as gooey blobs of thick paint splattered out and into my hair that I knew I was really having a good time.
Or maybe it was right when the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black came onstage. Why pussyfoot around? In the sacred tradition of Kiss, the Tubes, Gwar and Alice Cooper, the music rides shotgun--if not, at times, back seat--to The Act in the world of TVHOKB.
The lights go down. First the band comes out. The guitarist is an Asian person with a dyed-blond pompadour, no shirt, vinyl chaps with his ass cheeks hanging out and platform saddle shoes. The bass player is dressed as a chef, and the drummer opts for nothing more than a black-thong-bikini bottom.
All of these are men, mind you, just the band, after all; now the real stars take the stage to complete the stunning TVHOKB visual juggernaut. Three women, led by one Kembra Pfahler, walk on trancelike. All are painted from head to toe in purple and black, wear wickedly lame dime-store wigs, sleazy Pocono honeymoon G-strings, and have multicolored streamers hanging from their extended arms. The band kicks into a metal groove, the ladies stare and snarl at the audience with their blacked-out teeth, it's Night of the Living Dead gone bad. Or gone good, depending on your point of view. And there is, of course, music; tight but not particularly original pop metal, sort of Thin Lizzy meets Mtley Cre meets the New York Dolls. But so what? This band from New York (nine people in all lurch on and offstage) is all about show biz. Which means props. For "Water Coffin," which Pfahler says is "all about what we do in New York, take baths and smoke cigarettes," a yellow-, red- and black-striped man comes on with a big cardboard bathtub that lovely Kembra steps into. She wails away as he, quite seriously, holds a rubber duckie out to the audience for ritual viewing.
TVHOKB also incorporates a bunch of foil stars hanging from a tree branch, huge, flapping wings with teeth, a brick wall with working Kleenex dispensers on it, big, pink glasses, and a ton of fake snow that ended up on the small, stunned audience, most of whom just stood there grinning throughout the set.
And then it was all over but the encore: Pfahler appeared with a box on her head topped with burning birthday candles. By this time, the tresses of her cheap black wig had rubbed off swaths of purple body paint from her breasts, creating a look of two squinting black eyes, but by that time, the fans were punch-drunk on spectacle. As one guy yelled repeatedly when TVHOKB left the stage, "Un-fucking-believable!"
Sun Devil Stadium
July 19, 1994
Three things to remember at every stadium show:
1. After five times, most people tire of doing "the wave."
2. Some jerk doesn't quite "get it" and keeps the communal beach ball.
3. Everybody eventually winds up looking at the big screens.
That last point certainly held true last Sunday. Most people ignored opening act Los Lobos in favor of watching the strong gale winds ripping one of the screens in half. At one point, it looked as if it would unhinge completely from the scaffolding and hang-glide over the audience. Both screens had to come down, leaving the folks in the cheap seats ($29.50?!) at a serious disadvantage.
The storm never materialized, but the Eagles brought one along with them just in case. After the flashing strobes and the taped thunder ushered the members onstage, the band warmed up the crowd with five songs from Hotel California. "We're ba-a-a-a-ack," uttered Glenn Frey, acting as a genial, low-key master of ceremonies for most of the night. Big fans of the Eagles' recorded sound certainly weren't disappointed by the group's first set; not a harmony, tambourine beat or castanet click was missing, and none were added where they weren't expected. These classic songs were expertly performed, but one wonders if every guitar solo really needed to be a note-for-note re-creation of what was on the record. There's more to live shows than merely meeting expectations.
The human jukebox syndrome seemed to bore Joe Walsh, who, for most of the first set, sulked like a dog who'd been yelled at for jumping on the couch. He only seemed to come to life after performing songs he'd written, like "Ordinary Average Guy," which he sang while wearing Cat in the Hat headgear and trying to balance a bowling pin on his head. Timothy B. Schmit's sole Eagles song, "I Can't Tell You Why," was rich and creamy enough to make you forget you weren't going to get to hear Randy Meisner's "Take It to the Limit." Schmit's new song, "Love Will Keep Us Alive," wasn't on the same level, and most people probably forgot it before the last bass note stopped vibrating. After a brief intermission, the band became stool-bound and things took a decidedly mellow turn. Don Henley stepped out from behind the drums to perform the first in a long procession of solo material. The band's "unplugged" version of "Heart of the Matter" was a nice twist and made you wish the Eagles pulled out the trademark harmonies to help Henley when he was visibly straining for the high notes on "The Boys of Summer." What was most puzzling about the show from here on in was the crowd jumping to its feet for the first time and clapping madly for songs like "You Belong to the City" and "Dirty Laundry." Maybe it was because the crew finally got one of the screens to work again, keeping the MTV boomers happy. Even so, it's shocking to think all these fans have been clamoring 13 years for an Eagles reunion just so they could hear the band perform "All She Wants to Do Is Dance." Stadium-proven material like the James Gang's "Funk #49" and Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" really got the audience going, while Henley's crowd-baiting new song, "Get Over It," tried doing the same, but came off more as a slogan than a credible rocker. "This is a song about the age we live in, the age of whining," said the Oprah/Donahue-hating drummer boy, questioning where anyone gets the people for those shows. Knee-jerk reactionary lyrics like "I'd like to find your inner child and kick him in the ass" will probably mean Rush Limbaugh fans will buy it by the truckload.
Fittingly, the band closed with its first hit, "Take It Easy," getting the biggest cheers of the night by switching "standing on a corner in Tempe, Arizona" for boring old Winslow.
Hayden Square Amphitheatre
June 15, 1994
Ah, yes, it was the great Pretender--Chrissie Hynde, that is--piloting the sixth version of her 15-year-old group. And what a vision she was, all dolled up in black boots, blue jeans, faux biker jacket with lace sleeves, and her trademark, low-cut bangs snipped just enough to let that black eyeliner do its work. Hynde prowled the stage like a female Keith Richards, breathing new balls into trad-rock power poses and grinding out the rhythm chords on her Telecaster.
She was great to watch. Cool as ever, the supreme rock being, part heart-wrenching songbird, part butch ber-goddess.
Which did nothing to help the fact that the first five songs sounded like shit. Though it wasn't the band's fault--and admittedly, outdoor shows can be rough going--you'd think a big-ticket group like the Pretenders could get a sound man who realized there were other instruments besides just drums that needed to come through the PA.
As it was, classics like "Message of Love" and "Talk of the Town" were skewed pastiches of their former selves; it wasn't until "I Go to Sleep" that someone apparently figured out which knobs controlled vocals and guitar. Hynde's timeless voice was superb, as strong and unique now as it was back in 1980, when Nick Lowe described her appeal as "the girl behind the counter at Sears singing to herself when she thinks no one else is listening."
But there were plenty of people listening last Wednesday; a sell-out crowd jammed the Amphitheatre and every available terrace and balcony as mist from the bordering bar patios floated down and planes skimmed low overhead into the sunset. Drummer Martin Chambers, an original Pretender, was behind Hynde for the first time since 86, and the only musician onstage (other than Chrissie) who seemed to be particularly into what he was doing that night. Yes, the band rocked sufficiently, the band played all the right notes, the band didn't try to upstage the boss, but for many of the songs, there was a feeling of emotional distance from the material, as if the members had no desire to transcend the fact that they were hired professionals and actually sweat a bit. Particularly bovine was spike-haired, leather-trousered bassist Andy Hobson (late of the Primitives), who shuffled back and forth apparently trying to look cool and detached, but coming off more like some New Wave zombie.
But to stand there and listen to hit after hit reel off of Hynde's barbed tongue was to hear a body of work pass before your ears. "My City Was Gone," "Bad Boys Get Spanked," "Don't Get Me Wrong," "Precious," "Cuban Slide," "Middle of the Road" and the brand-new "Night in My Veins" were a few that had the crowd slathering praise.
At one point, Hynde asked the audience, "How many of you saw the original Pretenders? This one's for you," and launched into "Kid" from the band's debut album. (Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon--once Hynde's lover--died from drug overdoses in 82 and 83, respectively). Sure, she probably does the same intro at every show, but she did sound a little more tender than at any other time in the night. "Kid" is a crystal-perfect work of pop emotion, pure, shimmering melancholy wrapped in a melody that defines "hook." Thankfully, new guitarist Adam Seymour (who vaguely resembles Jon Lovitz) did not bow to sacrilege and played Honeyman-Scott's original solo note for note; it's one of those classic breaks that is a work within a work.
When encore time came around--and you knew it would--Chrissie got behind the drums (saying that "it's only a drum kit, that's not a real instrument") for about 30 seconds of something that sounded kind of like "Wipeout," then emerged for a low-key "Back on the Chain Gang" and "Stop Your Sobbing." But the people demanded more, and Hynde came back out with only a mike in hand for "Brass in Pocket," gyrating through the lyrics with her own personal brand of sign language. The line "I gotta have some of your attention--give it to me" was a pointless plea; Hynde had had it for the last hour and a half.
June 17, 1994
While most people were wandering around last Friday night wondering what was happening with O.J. Simpson, the Grays were center stage at the Roxy, hypothesizing. Guitarist/bassist Jon Brion dedicated a blistering version of "Nothing Between Us" to the former sports hero, his late wife and her male friend, opening up the song to all sorts of new lyrical meanings. The band's date had been twice rescheduled--from a headlining gig at the Roxy to one at the Mason Jar, and then finally back at the Roxy supporting the headlining Smithereens--yet the Grays turned enough heads during their brief set to make you forget who else was on the bill.
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Those who came to see the Grays solely on the strength of the current alternative hit, "Very Best Year," or remembered singer Jason Faulkner from his stint in Jellyfish, were getting only a third of the story. The band houses three talented vocalists/songwriters whose musical tastes are happily not polar opposites. This unified front resulted in gorgeous psychedelic harmonies, especially on the set's opening one-two punch: "Everybody Knows" and "Same Thing." Faulkner and Brion also traded instruments several times, and both displayed the same fluid McCartney/Colin Molding bass-playing style. The real stunner was Brion on lead guitar, wrenching his ax as if it were a boa coiling itself around him.
If playing slide guitar by scrubbing it against a monitor seems a clich stage move in print, it wasn't in person. The delightfully flabbergasted audience looked as if it'd just seen someone smash his guitar into a million pieces and then reassemble it to finish out the number. Now that's showmanship.
Confident enough to close with two as-yet-unrecorded numbers, the Grays proved that their best work still lies ahead. Can't wait.