Girls Against Boys
April 30, 1996
When I was 21, it was a very good year. I spent a third of my time in New York City, subsisting on cheap Indian food and crashing in a prewar walkup in the heart of the East Village. My place was right off the corner of 11th Street and First Avenue--just a diagonal block from the loft a Washington, D.C., hard-core band called Soul Side had relocated to in 1990, just before it changed its name to Girls Against Boys.
The roaches assumed control of my apartment when the lights went out, but it had hardwood floors and was within easy walking distance of clubs like CBGB and the Village Gate, so I had few complaints; one of them, however, was the frequency of small-arms fire.
The East Village itself is a cheaper, tougher SoHo--a lot of Ukrainian immigrants and struggling artists, but very little street violence. Unfortunately, the Village borders Alphabet City to the east and, after nightfall, Alphabet City is a no man's land of punk-rock gangs, anarchists, junkies, burned-out squats and crack dealers who like to shoot one another in the knee over who gets to sling rock on a given corner. Seriously, you'd see all these crack dealers with gimp legs. I guess the logic was that it's better to just blow off some guy's kneecap and put him out of commission for a while than kill him and risk a murder rap.
In any case, I heard too many shots for comfort coming from Alphabet City, and every once in a while some bullshit from Avenue A or B would spill over into my neighborhood. The worst was one steamy night in July, when some guy got shot in the elementary school basketball court across from where I lived. He got hit in the back of the legs with a single shotgun blast as he was running across the court. I didn't see it, but I heard the boom and went to my window in time to see this poor bastard slowly writhing his way toward the chain-link gate, trailing a dark slick of blood behind him. A sedan was idling on the opposite street. I was afraid someone would get out and finish him off, but the people in the car just shouted taunts for a minute or so, then sped away. I'm pretty sure the people at the outside tables of the renowned Italian bakery nearby had time to finish their cannoli before the ambulance arrived.
That's the lower east side for ya--multifaceted and highly cultured, but brutal all the same. Just the right catalyst for a band such as Girls Against Boys. Onstage at Gibson's on April 30, GVSB built soundscapes of home with a 70-minute set of sophisticated assault rock, colorful and hip yet bristling with violent intent.
GVSB hit the Tempe audience upside the head with thick slab after slab of Cop Shoot Cop-style racket. The sound was dense and ominous, but lead bassist Eli Janney kept slicing through the heart of the roiling mass to let in some light with his shiny strips of four-string razor wire.
Second bassist Johnny Temple and drummer Alexis Flesig kept the mercurial rhythms flowing, but stayed typically in the shadows of GVSB's sound, letting Janney and singer/guitarist Scott McCloud share the front and center. Throughout the show, McCloud exuded a suave, lounge-nation cool (he and Temple are starting to get notes for their lounge side project, New Wet Kojak).
Janney, on the flip side, lurched, hopped and threw himself into his bass lines like a happy little hyperactive kid who's doing just fine without his medicine, thank you. Grinning all the while, Janney launched arrow after arrow from his quiver of experimental bass techniques--playing overhand; using his amp stack as a slide for a kazoo-from-hell sound; and, on "Life in Pink," manipulating his volume knob in conjunction with fretboard tapping to achieve an eerie, staccato wah-wah.
There's been a lot of fuss made over the leering sexual overtones of McCloud's lyrics, but live it was a moot point, as his sultry growls were all but indecipherable tacked to his band's huge walls of noise.
For the Tempe concert, Girls Against Boys took most of its material from House of GVSB, the band's last album for Chicago indie label Touch and Go (GVSB signed with Geffen late last year). It's a testament to the band's street cred that it didn't burn its longtime label by turning in a crappy last album just to finish off a waning contract. House of GVSB is Girls Against Boys' best recording yet, solidifying the band's evolution from typical D.C. punkers to high-impact, East Village art rockers; a band with blast-furnace heat and power, but enough sleeved aces to stylistically set it far apart from (and ahead of) the large majority of modern-rock outfits.
"Disco Six Six Six" showed off the band at its live best. The song started with Janney pounding down a retro electric-organ groove--a device used to great success on several numbers--as McCloud power-strummed and moaned lyrics into the mike, looking like a million bucks in his purple, velvety thrift-store score of a shirt. No matter how high a frenzy the song reached, Janney just kept looping the organ line, creating the same technoesque trance vibe that courses through several of GVSB's killer numbers. Unlike most GVSB songs, "Disco" never exploded, but just cut off at the end in a shocking snap, like the drop of an unseen guillotine. Whack. Silence. Then crazy cheers.
The only down note of GVSB's Valley performance was the apparent mismatch of band to venue, as Gibson's security people didn't seem to understand that when the music is loud and frenetic, the crowd will mosh. Instead, they shut down any pit as soon as it started. And they shut it down hard. Too hard. One scrawny lad who tried to mix it up with his friends after he'd been told not to was grabbed from behind in a half nelson and arm-bar and dragged out of the club. That level of force was clearly unnecessary. But the main point is that if a venue can't handle policing a mosh pit to keep it safe, it simply should not book bands that people mosh to. Duh.
Anyway, while I was out watching the watchmen, my New Times compadre Paul Rubin had my back for the Salif Keita show the same night down in Tucson. He checks in below.
Scene One: UCLA's Wadsworth Theatre, Saturday night, April 27. Dozens of people are clamoring for tickets to the Salif Keita show outside the old hall on the Westwood campus. The event has been sold out for days and scalpers are getting at least $50 each for the cheapest tickets ($27.50).
The anticipation is palpable. The native of Mali is known as one of Africa's greatest, most innovative singers, and local papers have been raving about him in preview story after story.
Inside the 2,400-seat hall, a local deejay gives an informative preconcert talk about Salif: He was born in 1949, the third of 13 children born to a direct descendant of a 13th-century emperor. An albino, Salif's limited eyesight and pale skin left him especially vulnerable to the sun and heat of his homeland. He drifted as a teen to the capital of Bamako, where he later found a job singing for the Rail Band. That group played daily for hundreds of people at the Bamako railroad station.
Salif's solo career began in the late 1970s and took off internationally when he moved to Paris in 1984. These days, he's a bona fide superstar in Africa who plays to packed auditoriums in Europe and South America. The States, however, are a tough nut for a guy who sings in a foreign language and whose music is played only on college and community radio stations.
The show at Wadsworth is kick-ass from the git-go: Salif's superb ten-piece band is big, boisterous and intricate, its sound at once reminiscent of Motown, Cuban big-band, fusion jazz, funk and Latin.
Much of the audience knows Salif's tunes by heart, and everyone is dancing ten minutes into the show. Audience members jump onto the stage to stick folded dollar bills between the teeth of favored musicians. A wonderful guitarist struts around the stage for minutes with a dozen-or-so bills flopping on either side of his mouth. Salif's pure voice soars over the band as the crowd roars its approval. He's a charismatic performer in the mold of a James Brown, a George Clinton, a Marvin Gaye.
The show ends two hours after it starts, with Salif alone onstage strumming an acoustic guitar and singing the beautiful "Folon . . . the Past," title track of his latest CD. The audience files out in the cool Los Angeles night, smiling and sated.
Scene Two: Tucson's Rialto Theatre, Tuesday night, April 30. It's 20 minutes before the start of Salif's show and the promoter is ranting. "I'm taking it in the shorts on this thing," he says loudly and to no one in particular.
By showtime, about 300 people have wandered into the onetime moviehouse, which holds about 800. Salif and his band hit the stage about 8:15 p.m. to polite applause.
A minor-league situation would encourage many bands to go through the motions and get out of town. But the Salif Keita Large Band is special. It transcends the moment. Again, there is magic in the air. The music gods are smiling. As the gig ends, so is the audience. And so is Salif.
Item one: The effort to help out Tucson guitarist Rainer Ptacek and his family continues with the recent release of a benefit album on Epiphany Records. Wood for Rainer features 14 live, acoustic tracks from several Tucson bands, including the Drakes, Dog and Pony Show, 35 Summers and Rainer, himself. All album-sale profits go to the Rainer Ptacek Medical Fund.
Item two: The CD-release party for Serene Dominic and the Semi-Detached's new album, Heathens of Vaudeville, is scheduled for Sunday, May 12, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. On the bill: Serene himself, Brian Smith's brother Barry on violin and a puppeteer or two. This should be interesting.--David Holthouse
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