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The Jesus Lizard: Still crazy after all these years 

Wednesday, Oct 14 2009
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The Jesus Lizard is one of the few heavy bands to emerge from second-wave punk's golden era with a commitment to totally insane fun. Back when fanzines ruled and alternative rock was truly alternative, most groups were either angsty and earnest (grunge) or angry and violent (hardcore). There was little room for crazy-ass good times. That's where the Jesus Lizard came in. With its singular frontman David Yow — a drunken rampager fond of dropping trou, crowd-surfing half the set, and working himself up into such an inebriated froth he'd stumble off the stage and crack his ribs — this Chicago-based quartet stood out like no one before or since.

Yow doesn't sing so much as slur, spit, and howl his lyrics, which are more often than not indecipherable Dadaisms. His one-of-a-kind vocal style leans toward performance art or, as he suggests in a recent interview, "art punk." He believes the Jesus Lizard is akin to the Birthday Party or Led Zeppelin in that they have the "energetic attitude of punk, but the artistic sensibilities are higher."

His bandmates, in fact, are widely regarded as real musicians. Guitarist Duane Denison has an instantly recognizable, serrated timbre. He can shred with the best of the metalheads, but opts for slasher riffs and skewed, jazz-derived chord voicings over wanky solos. Bassist David Wm. Sims (a former six-string slinger in Yow's pre-Lizard noise combo, Scratch Acid) matches Denison's razor-sharp lines with a muscular tone and a stealthy sense of groove. Drummer Mac McNeilly pounds the hell out of his trap set while still managing to swing within the propulsive rhythms. It's a masterful feat. Collectively, the Jesus Lizard creates an edgy sound that's sophisticated, dangerous-feeling, and freakishly entertaining.

That's why fans rejoiced when the group reunited after nearly a decade apart to perform this past spring at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the U.K. Now on a brief, one-off U.S. tour, which coincides with former indie label Touch and Go's release of its remastered Jesus Lizard catalogue, the band will hit the Fillmore this Saturday.

Yow and company joke that they got back together for the money, echoing a similar crack he made when they signed to Capitol during the post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy of the mid-'90s. In stiff-middle-finger punk fashion, the band broke up shortly after cashing in its hefty advance, reaming the corporates with a pair of so-so albums and a huge tax writeoff. Such a bold-faced sellout disappointed the group's cultlike followers, who still regard the Jesus Lizard as one of rock's all-time greatest live acts.

For those in the know, this reunion promises to be the must-see concert of the year. But don't look for a naked Yow this time out. At 49, he says, "Nobody wants to see that. I see pictures of myself and think, 'Who the fuck did I think I was?'"

At that first ATP gig, Yow admits to feeling very nervous and didn't anticipate even going shirtless or crowd-surfing. But when the first song kicked in, he was swept up in the music and soon went bare-chested, swimming atop a sea of frenzied fans, shouting his mad lyrics without missing a beat. Of course, he was adequately primed with liquor. After all, the Jesus Lizard are trained professionals.

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Sam Prestianni

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