Erratic behavior makes the heart grow fonder

As a fervent underground music fan, you occasionally give temperamental artists slack in hopes of getting back something extra down the line. Neither Jennifer Herrema nor Ariel Pink are what I'd call reliable performers — the former's cancelled enough shows in her lifetime to provoke laugher when you talk of upcoming performances, while the latter's unusual stage antics caused controversy last year. Yet last weekend, when both musicians were set to play in town, I put my faith in these erratic Southern California icons. And at least one of them not only showed up, but proved to be a compelling live entertainer, kinks and all.

Driving across the Bay Bridge last Friday, my friends and I listed our favorite Jennifer Herrema letdowns. The female half of defunct junk rockers Royal Trux and current frontwoman for the scuzz-encrusted RTX has failed to arrive for gigs in towns ranging from Raleigh, N.C., to Big Sur, Calif., and gave an abysmal performance in Seattle a couple years back. Now we could add Oakland to the list: RTX was a no-show (due to "van trouble") at Ghost Town Gallery, a gig that was promoted through multiple e-mails from her record label. All of which lead our carload to ask, if Herrema's screwed up so many times, why do we keep giving her a chance? The Royal Trux cult hosts an eternal flame; even on days when Herrema burns out, fans carry hope that she'll get over the flaky thing (yeah, right) and create something really cool again. We worry about missing out on something, ya know, important in the meantime, whatever the hell that may be. I keep mining her stuff, even RTX's kinda shitty LSD-washed rawk, for superior stoner visions, and end up feeling blinded by the idea of Herrema over what she's accomplishing of late. It's probably part of that ol' adage that the more elusive someone becomes, the stronger the attraction.

Luckily, though, Friday's activities didn't end with missed connections. I'd banked on a word-of-MySpace show earlier with Ariel Pink, and came out ahead. When the lo-fi art popper toured for his House Arrestdisc in 2006, his performances were high on concept, low on functionality. He auditioned backing bands in every city, practicing with them in all the minutes one has between sound check and show time. (Pitchfork Media commented, "If there's one thing about Ariel Pink that everyone can agree on, it's that his live act is, well, something we can all argue about.")

Crammed into the bowels of Chinatown dive Li Po, though, the crowd was too busy getting one of those "if you weren't there, you missed out" shows to dissect technicalities. That's not to say there weren't argumentative undertones to the evening: Pink was short on temper, shouting to his (non-improvised) touring band, "Stop tuning!" He called his drummer a stoner and berated his crew with dry humor: "This is where the song stops; you'd know that if you knew the song." And when an overzealous drunk grabbed a stray mike, Pink grabbed it right back and sang in stereo.

In the end, though, Pink transformed those shattered bedroom ditties into wonderfully odd basement ballads. Under a low-hanging disco ball, he orchestrated prom songs for schizophrenics, new romantic tunes that, the more you left the details in soft focus, the sweeter they sounded. Especially the confectionary "Alisa," with its lovesick refrain of "Alisa, you're in my heart, you're in my dreams, you're in my soul." Pink is a bizzaro pop savant, and when he keeps his songs in tune (which isn't always the case on disc, but was the case that night), his voice melts into the warm synths and guitars for a twisted Roxy Music-ish treat.

As with Herrema, appreciating Ariel Pink takes patience. His songs sound like competing concepts interrupting one another; he'll perform with complete strangers or with peers estranged from the nuances of his songwriting. But instability is a necessary ingredient to the eons-old formula of live music — although I'll admit my torch for RTX is getting slightly dimmer by the cancelled date.

 
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