Have you ever seen a nearly naked man hit himself repeatedly in the groin while prowling around the stage like recently caged animal who has just been freed?
The scene was Hollywood Alley, a Mesa club of some legend and renown, in the early 2000s. Oxbow was tearing the place apart, and singer Eugene Robinson was scaring the bejesus out of me. It almost hurt to watch him pummel himself while never missing a beat. His bandmates seemed to be oblivious to the violence of the moment, but the music they were making was clearly egging Robinson on.
Go further, it seemed to say.
Destroy everything, I seemed to hear.
Live or die, it doesn't matter.
Just do it, man, but not like Nike. Like a real, human person feeling all the things they can feel.
Oxbow, who hail from the San Francisco area, are almost indescribable. They rock hard. They've put together a career that spans decades, genres and sensibilities. Oxbow is what rock and roll promised the universe it would could be back in the day when parents feared their children were flocking to the devil over Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley singing and dancing a little bit risqué.
Oxbow is that fear fulfilled.
Robinson (who is also a black belt in jiu-jitsu, acclaimed author, actor and editor), guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Niko Wenner, bassist Dan Adams and drummer Greg Davis are the real fucking deal even before they step on stage and start to rock. When you bring the four together, you literally never know what you're going to get. You might want to play some of their music for your grandmother, and you might also hope your grandmother never hears the rest.
Beauty and the beast? Maybe.
“Aaron [Turner] from Sumac said it best about new Oxbow music: ‘It’s not what I expected but it’s everything I hoped for.’ That’s what has always stuck in my mind as being pretty emblematic of what people should feel [when] approaching a new Oxbow release,” Robinson says.
The latest Oxbow release, "Love’s Holiday," is just over 40 minutes long and it absolutely slays. As a vocalist, Robinson doesn’t just sing the songs, he lives them. He curls his defined bicep around the listener and brings you into the mix whether you like it or not. You hang on for dear life, because Wenner and company are not going to save you. They're just going to play until you tap out, get naked or find your bliss somewhere in between.
The opening moments of “Dead Ahead” are awfully reminiscent of The Jesus Lizard at the peak of their powers while the band raises the tension level to a crisp and precipitous peak. (There is a lovely picture of Jesus Lizard singer David Yow and Robinson in the early pages of Robinson’s excellent new memoir, "A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight Into Murderer’s Row.")
On “1000 Hours,” the band creates a soulful cavern to explore in the dark. The video is easily one of the most compelling of the year.
“It’s got a special place in my heart because I had just had surgery right before [the band recorded the song] and I had to hobble down this road that had been washed out by floods. I was walking on crutches and was having this whole meditation on life and death prior to surgery. It was ‘minor’ surgery, but every surgery is not ‘minor’ surgery. I was glad to be alive, but that whole week, prior to and after surgery, mortality was dancing in my head. The song, the lyric and the video kill me,” says Robinson.
Oxbow have been creating videos for all their new songs, because, as Wenner puts it, “If we don’t, someone will.” Better for the band to have control over their video content than anyone else, I suppose.
Wenner was very happy with what director John Levy came up with for “1000 Hours.”
“It is really an amazing thing to work with him. His aesthetic and sensitivity to what we’re doing is amazing,” shares Wenner.
While Oxbow haven't come to Arizona a lot over the years, they are fans of local punk legends JFA.
When Robinson and Wenner were in the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Whipping Boy, "we played with JFA three or four times in 1982, I think. I still love those guys,” says Robinson, who also professed a deep love for Meat Puppets as well.
The best thing about Oxbow, though, is they're fearless. Wenner creates amazing soundscapes for Robinson, Adams and Davis to jump fully into and add their beautiful, gut-searching madness and joy. Both Wenner and Robinson seem to fully relish the opportunities the band affords them and aren’t anywhere near being ready to call it quits.
“A long time ago, back in the hardcore days of physically not being able to do what I thought was called for on stage, I had this real ‘road to Damascus’ moment where I said if I’m going to continue doing this, I can’t let that happen again. Why would I waste people’s time? Why would I waste my time to create a piece of artwork that is grossly inadequate because I’m not in shape to pull it off, so since then, all of us in our own way have managed to be able to have the widest panoply possible open to us when we perform the music that we painstakingly create in the studio,” says Robinson.
Wenner adds, “It’s pretty clear that I still want to satisfy that [inner] 14-year-old. We all carry our childhood within us and it gets corrupted and lost in several ways. I started playing guitar seriously at 14 when I bought that first Van Halen record and thought, ‘That’s a good audience.’ I grew out of wanting to do that kind of guitar, totally, no disrespect to Eddie Van Halen, but we’re still on our own path.”
I can't wait to see what happens at Pub Rock on Saturday night. No matter what transpires, it will alter trajectories, open minds, frighten the unprepared and throw a beautiful, violent pebble into the musical pond that is Phoenix.
Oxbow. With Psychic Trash and Dead Canyon. 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at Pub Rock, 8005 E. Roosevelt St., Scottsdale. Tickets are available here.