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What do Hank Williams and Idiot Flesh have in common? Well, not much. But you can hear both of them, sometimes simultaneously, at the Stork Club.
Oaktown's exclusive haven for the experimental aesthetic is a mishmash of red-white-and-blue kitsch skewed to surreal perfection by a Christmas-all-year-round decor. Percolating with cheap whiskey, cold beer, and crusty locals, Mickey and Wes Chittock's homey country bar by day transforms into a den of live music mayhem on weekend nights. That's when poets and stoners, musicians and music junkies, and revelers of all backgrounds come together in a motley melange of spirited excess. Bucking mainstream indifference, which too often translates into tragically lean numbers at the door, for the past two years booking sorceress Lorrie Murray has plumbed the depths of the alternative wasteland to conjure forth audacious bills ranging from international touring marvels (John Zorn's Masada, Melt Banana, Eugene Chadbourne, Ruins) to world-class Bay Area enigmas (Idiot Flesh, Splatter Trio, Eskimo, Club Foot Orchestra).
A couple of months back, a shock wave ripped through East Bay avant-garde music circles: Murray was quitting the Stork. She explains, "I want to have a little bit of my own life back." Somewhat exasperated by low-budget constraints and basically "tired of the smoky bar scene," the scarcely compensated Murray had begun to find it "difficult to be there every single weekend." Ultimately though, "It's not so much burnout," she says, "just that other areas are starting to take up more time."
Murray's referring to her increasing role in the Idiot Flesh medicine show. After more than a half-dozen years of intense local concerts and recent buzz-generating tours of the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, the group's supertheatrical dementia is beginning to attract an equally demented following. Its self-produced Nothing Show CD has just picked up European distribution; the group is hoping to augment an East Coast tour this fall with stints in Germany and possibly Japan. Locally, its prime noontime slot at Embarcadero Center during the Making Waves festival, and a spectacular showing at the Fillmore Sessions in May, reinforced the band's status as one of the Bay Area's leading eccentric music ensembles.
If you have never experienced Idiot Flesh up close and personal, the scenario plays out something like this: In a seemingly discombobulated but fairly choreographed frenzy, the core quartet and its huge entourage of co-conspirators (thespians, dancers, singers, madmen) writhe through the crowd blowing noisemakers and gigantic horns, beating percussion, and eliciting call-and-response participation.
After this novel introduction, the quartet mounts the stage for a visually arresting, aurally challenging extravaganza of limb-jerking, head-banging anthems like "Black Sand," "Chicken Little," and "Blue Head," with its cryptic imperative, "Submit/ To the cavernous yield/ Of the blue head." At various performances, one may witness over-the-top costumery (giant foam heads, inflatable appendages), whimsical interludes (butoh dance, nutty and savage puppet theater), and guaranteed singing, dancing, and general frolicking en masse.
The band uses its youthful training in the technical art of speed metal to disfigure its songs with decomposed riffs, extreme rhythm shifts, and fractured time signatures. Subscribing at times to an ironic Satan-can-be-fun posture on tunes like "Teen Devil Worshipper Jonathan Cantero's List of Activities for the Twelfth of October," the group plays up the angle of evil run amok with the intensity of a Geraldo exorcism. This parallels the group's "Rock Against Rock" motto, where it intends to bludgeon the traditional concept of rock music with rock's own traditional weapons: loud guitars, drums, bass, and vocals.
No wonder these guys are the de facto house band at the Stork, where there is always a stunning incongruity among the working-class boozers, weekend partyers, and courageous songmakers. As Murray says, "You never know what you're going to run into down there."
In a moment of fond reflection, she confesses, "I love that club. I love the people there. I don't intend to walk away from it fully. And there is no way I will see the club go down. It's too important to Oakland." To carry on, she recruited "supportive Stork Club attendee" and Get Off My Wagon fanzine publisher Sandy Stork (no relation) to take her place at the end of August. Murray vows that he will "maintain the booking policies" while "putting a little fresh blood, a little variety into the mix."
Any final words? "The Stork is a great place to visit," Murray says, "but I wouldn't want to live there."
The Stork Club's "Summer Christmas Party," with Idiot Flesh, Giant Ant Farm, Eskimo, and others, is Saturday, July 27, at 9:30 p.m. at 380 12th St. in Oakland; call (510) 444-6174.
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