It's almost one in the morning at Asylum's Greenpeace benefit concert, and there's not an eco-freak in sight. There's no sign of the speakers, petition circulators or environmentally minded standup comics who packed the Tempe nightspot earlier in the evening to raise funds for the fight against the toxic-waste dump in Mobile. The beery bunch of college kids lining up to buy their last pitchers of Bud are obviously here for the partying, not the politics. But just when you thought all the militants had called it a night, Dead Hot Workshop takes the stage.
"I'd like a big toxic-waste incinerator constructed straight up Rose Mofford's ass," snorts DHW lead singer Brent Babb.
The crowd cheers, egging on Babb's tirade. "Fuck ENSCO!" shouts the vocalist, referring to the builder of the dump. "But it's not just ENSCO--it's our whole state government. They're all sleeping together."
Such displays of knee-jerk radicalism are routine for Phoenix's reigning politico-rockers. At a Dead Hot Workshop show, you're never quite sure if the band is voicing sincere concern or just hosting a boozy preachfest. Still, most locals do believe that the group's social conscience is at least as mighty as its garage-rock sound. The Workshop just may be establishing itself as the Valley's answer to U2.
"This is much more than a band," asserts bassist Brian Griffith of the quartet that includes himself, Babb, guitarist Steven Larson, and drummer Scott Palmer. "This isn't about just going up on-stage and doing your thang and getting girls and drinking and stuff like that. This is our way of bringing important issues to the forefront. If it wasn't for the band, I would probably be going to school to get into politics and Brent would be speaking or being an activist of some sort."
Besides the recent Don't Waste Arizona concert, the band has donated its guitar-rock talents to two anticensorship benefits within the past few months. With song titles like "Fuck No!," DHW has good reason to fear the censorship hysteria that's sweeping the country. "Burger Christ" is another of the group's songs that would probably raise the ire of Jan Brewer types. That track, inspired by a Burger King soft drink cup, takes a jaundiced view of religion and American culture that's typical of many songs in the Dead Hot repertoire.
Although the group has committed itself to a shopping list of causes, DHW has one particular pet crusade. "The abuse of police power is the big issue with us," notes Griffith, "mainly because it's touched all of us. All of us have been in a quagmire with the law at one time or another. Brent's had the worst of it lately."
The 'shop singer says he's been busted for marijuana possession several times, and that a recent arrest outside the Sun Club in Tempe even landed him in the clink. Babb drew on these experiences for his anticop diatribe on "Race in Your Face": "They'll stick you in a cage for smoking dope outside of a bar at any time/They'll take away your cigarettes, your sanity and every God-given right."
With other Valley bands like the Gin Blossoms singing about porn stars and party girls, the politically minded DHW is a welcome presence on the local scene. But as admirable as its protest tunes are, they can make you long for an occasional lyric that isn't so politically correct or socially responsible. At times, the Workshop's earnest message-making threatens to strip the fun from its music.
"We are serious about our messages," admits Griffith. "But this is still entertainment. Our music can be enjoyed on its own. But at least the message is there so you can get both--musical enjoyment and a social message or whatever the hell you want."
What you'll get if you check out the band live are some of Babb's notorious between-song speeches, which are part political commentary and part standup comedy. The singer's favorite targets are George Bush, Lee Atwater, and the whole "Republican machine"--as well as forgotten celebrities like Freddie Prinze. Babb's politicized sermons draw a mixed reaction. Some find the singer witty, while others have been known to yell, "SHUT UP AND PLAY!"
"I mean, I'd like to make a point every time," explains Babb about his spiels, "but I can't always do that. And I'm not always necessarily funny. But I figure you've got to do something while you are tuning your guitar."
Babb's offhand homilies have become more caustic than ever recently. You'll find him delivering fewer jokes and more political barbs at gigs these days. Griffith sees this as evidence of an even greater anger and frustration boiling up in the singer--and the band in general.
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"When I first met Brent a year ago--when I first joined the band--he was different from that," notes the bassist. "It's rage building up more and more. And the more he gets enraged, the more I get enraged, and Stevie and Scottie, too. It comes across in the music and the performance. It's a big outlet for us, and the microphone for Brent is a tremendous outlet.
"Like he's said before, `I've got eight thousand watts of power coming down my throat. You better listen up.'"
At a Dead Hot Workshop show, you're never quite sure if the band is voicing sincere concern or just hosting a boozy preachfest.
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