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Following the video-driven, stagy excesses of the '80s (as epitomized by David Lee Roth), something akin to a style recession changed the look of rock music. The alternative boom of the early '90s championed a near-Spartan aesthetic. Big hair and stage clothes were out; anomie and Prozac were in. All of a sudden it was considered crass and commercial for a band to act like they aspired to sell records. And, for this reason, gimmickry was an absolute no-no. Bands grudgingly conceded to low-concept, arty videos, but using visual gimmicks in live performance implied a lack of seriousness about the music. Gimmicks reeked of pandering to the masses -- of being radio-friendly, money-hungry, and just plain phony.
But it wasn't always this way. Visual gimmicks, particularly sartorial ones, were once considered an asset. For the Beatles, natty matching suits were a useful way to project neatness, togetherness, and, by extension, credibility; years later, when Urge Overkill made the scene in matching attire, they were dismissed as foppish pretenders. The new inference was that if you're a musician and you mean it, you don't wear a uniform. This anti-gimmick trend may be one reason why so many uninteresting clone bands formed during the burgeoning of "modern rock" -- groups lacking the wherewithal to work up an exciting gimmick figured that if Pearl Jam didn't need one, they didn't either.
But if visual gimmicks have all but vacated the realm of mainstream rock music (resurfacing occasionally in the dubious form of Kiss reunion tours and/or Marilyn Manson), there are a number of smaller, wittier bands who are embracing them and, in the process, making live music a lot more fun. Case in point: a recent Sunday benefit for the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center at the Kilowatt, where Rube Waddell, Frenchy, and Mingo 2000 worked their respective shticks to a highly appreciative crowd. If the evening's performances made anything clear, it was that a funny hat never hurt a decent band.
Rube Waddell, a hootenanny consisting of guitar, squeeze-box, distorted vocals, and found-object percussion, came off like Tom Waits fronting Southern Culture on the Skids, with a little Jon Spencer thrown in. The trio displayed a Lil' Abner-style fashion sense, a somewhat unsurprising lyrical obsession with the devil, and an eagerness to sell their signature cooking aprons ("You can cook food without 'em, but it won't taste very good," they warned). The hobo sensibility and the gusto with which they performed begged the question of whether some bands need to be seen live to be appreciated. It's hard to imagine putting on a Rube Waddell recording and kicking back at home. But, hey, their sound got people in the club moving (and, in the case of one bunch, inspired a group grope and some spanking).
If Rube Waddell's aesthetic tended toward the backwoods, Frenchy's was decidedly neo-lounge. If Seinfeld's Kramer had his own theme music, it would probably sound a lot like Frenchy's set-opener -- an agitated, shimmying repetition of the word "groovy." With a retro instrumental lineup of xylophone, tenor sax, guitar, and marimbas, and a campy repertoire that includes a cover of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," Frenchy's cocktail rock flaunts its influences. Like others in the recent wave of lounge bands -- Combustible Edison, Squirrel Nut Zippers, etc. -- their attire is the visual hook, but the music, for the most part, stands on its own.
The most interesting demonstration of visual gimmickry that night belonged to Mingo 2000. The five-piece band appeared almost disappointingly unadorned until, a minute before launching into their first manic James-Bond-theme-meets-Sergio-Leone amalgam, each donned an ill-fitting wig. Their set would have been just as good without the mangy hairpieces, but the fact that they recognized the transformative possibility of the gimmick was a great gimmick in itself.
Mingo 2000's tongue-in-cheek mutation was a reminder of the unspoken pact made between musician and fan: the acknowledgment of their difference. This pact provides good reason for visual gimmicks. Pearl Jam fans may think they want Eddie Vedder to be a regular, down-to-earth guy, but if that's true, why has he been given such rock-god cachet? If he were really a regular guy, he'd be doing data entry or hanging out at a coffee shop like the rest of them. By being in a million-selling band and kvetching about it in big, glossy publications, he's pretty much surrendered his regular-guy status whether he likes it or not. So he might as well put on a giant bunny suit and get the rest of the band to follow, because their success depends at least partially on the invisible line drawn between musician and fan.
Seeing these groups underscored the fact that having fun at shows -- for both the audience and the band -- is an aspect of the live experience that is often subsumed when musicians seem loath to act silly. So if it takes some funny wigs to get that going, why not? It's rare enough that crowds at San Francisco rock clubs can forget their self-consciousness long enough to move their bodies beyond a cool, detached bob of the head or an inconspicuous tap of the foot. All three of these bands had people actually dancing -- moments into Mingo 2000's set, the front of the Kilowatt looked like a Solid Gold rerun -- and, gimmick or not, isn't this sort of visceral response the aim of live music?
By Andi Zeisler
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