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Divine Hammers 

Wednesday, May 21 1997
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The Breeders, Lutefisk, Paleface
Great American Music Hall,
Tuesday, May 13

It wasn't enough that the Breeders-Lutefisk-Paleface lineup offered a consistently worthwhile evening of pop song and dumb noise -- it also ably demonstrated the whole phenomenon of celebrity draw. Ten minutes before potty-mouthed, gruff-voiced singer/songwriter Paleface initiated his set, the floor of the Great American Music Hall was sterile of all life; there probably weren't even bacteria in the club's urinals. By the time the Breeders -- who, as we know, are a bankable name, and nothing so obscure as an anti-folk guitarist -- the crowd had grown considerably. It had, in fact, become a sweaty, tight-packed aggregate of heads and shoulders, a bed of body-temperature coals which actually heated and humidified the upper balconies of the club, where I was sitting. Looking over the crowd, I marveled at how people actually like to crowd together like that. I used to, I suppose. At speed-metal shows some years ago, until I realized just how fundamentally gross the immersion was, my clothes would soak through with other people's sweat -- and then dry during the car ride home like a ghastly full-body cast of denim and bodily fluid. Maybe it's not just the monkey instinct to engage in a giant communal frottage, but more of an urge to grope fame. Perhaps being as close as possible to the celebrity object -- in this case, Kim Deal -- puts the object's fame within reach. As if fame were as contagious as the bacteria that doubtless enjoyed tangoing rose-in-teeth from body to body during "Cannonball." (No one in attendance grew appreciably famous during the show.)

Granted, Paleface doesn't suit everybody as a performer, and isn't exactly a chronic on the fame ward. One young woman seated nearby with her fella demonstrated her impatience with several pained faces during the antisocial minstrel's consumer-society rants and loudmouthed yeah-yeah-yeahs. (It was rather loud -- painfully, enjoyably so.) Paleface grumbled from the outset: Immediately after his introduction, to scattered but enthusiastic applause from the club's margins, he fumbled with his amplifier and harmonica rig and said, "I don't like these introductions, 'cause I'm not ready. Now I look stupid." Limiting as it may be, Paleface's anger-and-sarcasm schtick is still pretty funny. "It doesn't make sense," he sneered over his strum. "It makes mmmmoneyyyyy." Paleface's acoustic rants exerted not a little influence on kitsch-blender Beck -- they were roommates, once, in New York -- though you won't hear it on anything of Beck's that has charted. (Beck may be famous now, but he had no bug with which to infect Paleface at the time.) Instead, consult Beck's One Foot in the Grave, and my personal favorite Beck song, "Satan Gave Me a Taco." Even Paleface's acknowledgments of the scarce crowd were funny. At one point, he shielded his eyes from the house lights, peered out upon the great emptiness, and muttered under his breath, "Oh, dear." But Paleface is well-liked among the ranks of oddball musicians, as demonstrated by the sudden appearance of Quazar, Lutefisk's drummer, on the empty kit during one ballad about a seedy carny (or something). Quazar knew all the accents, but Paleface apparently wasn't let in on the duet. "He scared the fucking shit out of me!" he exclaimed after Quazar stepped down. "I thought the roof fell in."

Speaking of Quazar, he may be one of the best visual elements in Lutefisk, a Silverlake-region (buzz-buzz-buzz) four-piece that has much to offer besides. Quazar's stage presence confirms that a silly head of hair goes far in rock. His is a particularly unorthodox 'fro -- a wavy mass that tumbles off to either side of his head like a pair of detonated Princess Leia buns. He is also a great drummer. Not a percussive mathematician -- god forbid we get into experimental time signatures and the Canadian prog cachet -- but a heavy-hitter whose head-jerks and open-mouthed expressions of enthusiasm endear him like a Muppet. Never forget: Rock needs Muppets, or at least bad hairdos.

Many things about Lutefisk underscore the importance of silliness, sonic as well as visual. I've seen the band before, and they seem to open every set (or sound check) with mewling loops of guitar effects (probably harmonizers and Echoplexes), reminiscent of Louis and Bebe Barron's electronic score for the movie Forbidden Planet. No doubt this sort of indulgence is annoying to many people, and sometimes, rightly so. "Bonjour, San Francisco," said singer/guitarist Dallas Don, introducing the band. "Nous sommes Lutefisk." If you didn't know anything about the group, you might have thought they were French, based on the arty bent to their racket (and despite the Scandinavian origin of their iodized gustatory namesake). But Lutefisk have plenty of strong songs to accompany their flippant sense of humor. They performed their more palatable material, full of both dual-guitar, arena-rock chordal movements and silly, swooping sound effects: "Tin Man's Cue," "Absolute Cloud Free Shine," "Miniature in F," and, best of all, the power-chugger "Hug Me (Sexy Revolution)," which has some of the most trenchant lyrics about intimacy I've ever heard. "Revolutionize me, baby/ Strap on and attack/ Make me be your girlfriend, baby/ Fuck me [seven times] in the ass." The crowd was polite until Kim Deal came out to patter on drums at the end of "Hug Me," at which time they became downright frolicsome.

The Breeders are a wonderfully unpretentious outfit who churn out catchy and original material using the most rudimentary techniques. (In this case, Deal's strums, consisting almost entirely of downstrokes, complemented by backbeats from Jim MacPherson's spare drum arrangements.) Their sound is like that of new wave, stripped of its powdered wig. This sort of creative simplicity is one of rock's best features -- innovation through (what the classically trained musician would deem) incompetence. And as stage presence goes, the new Breeders lineup (bassist Josephine Wiggs and Deal's identical twin Kelly amscrayed) has plenty of it. Not in terms of showmanship (Vegas fashion, anyway), but personality. One of the new guitarists was particularly good at churning out the one-liners. Upon screwing up one song: "I'm like the lost Deal triplet." Upon screwing up in general: "Good thing it's my birthday -- I'm fucking up a lot of these songs." (His name eludes me.) Carrie Bradley -- who plays fiddle on Breeders albums -- played third guitar and exuded charm with a massive grin and a stiff gait. (Live, Bradley fiddled on the Ed's Redeeming Qualities cover, "Driving on 9," proving that a badly-mixed violin may prove more harmful to human hearing than any wailing guitar. It hurt -- hardly her fault.) Deal was especially gracious and earthy. When a fan tossed what looked like flower petals at her, she said, "Wow. They're beautiful -- I thought they were packing-peanuts." There's nothing to dislike about the Breeders.

Sometimes, however, I fret over a crowd's love of the familiar. Though they were surely enthusiastic (and spastic) throughout the Breeders' set -- the young lady who looked so pained during Paleface commenced the Dance of the Seven Veils when the headliners started -- at no moment were they more out (or perhaps well inside) of sorts than when the Hit Single rang out. This being, of course, "Cannonball" -- a great song, and one that reaffirmed my fondness for the aggressive pop chord sequence upon its initial release. The crowd started moving in eerie unison -- some ranks swaying left and right, others hopping up and down. It was like witnessing a debauched version of Communist public-square calisthenics.

To give the crowd credit (and I'm not really rallying against them), they applauded almost as merrily during the new and unfamiliar material as they did during "Iris" (from Pod), "No Aloha" and "New Year" (from Last Splash) -- including one really obtuse new offering in which every instrument seems to play out of sync. Suspicion of the merry hive mentality notwithstanding, it was the best live show I've seen in an era. But the large crowd threatened to make catching a cab difficult (even for the monied, lap-coated Mitchell Bros. patrons next door, who draw cabs like Kim Deal draws fans), so if there was an encore, and if anything especially noteworthy happened -- say, a pyrotechnics display, or a Bigfoot sighting -- I'm not wise. It doesn't matter -- no fiery pinwheels or cryptozoology could have outmatched the spectacle that one shirtless "Cannonball"-celebrating gent provided. During that number, he twirled and stomped with such weird and uncoordinated hedonism that I thought it might start raining in there. Whatever bug he'd caught, let's hope he's feeling better.

About The Author

Michael Batty

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