Barrence Whitfield & the Savages
May 8, 2015
Better than: Any number of punk acts with members who could easily be the actual grandchildren of the Sonics.
Is 70 the new 50 when it comes to legendary rockers? Judging from the frenetic performance delivered at the Fillmore Friday night by Northwestern garage-punk pioneers the Sonics, rock and roll may indeed be imparting some Fountain of Youth-style rejuvenation to the septuagenarian 1960s-era members of the band.
[jump] While founding guitarist Larry Parypa and company have been playing regularly since reuniting for Brooklyn's Cavestomp Festival in 2007, the Fillmore show marked the quintet's first return to the Bay Area since a pair of fiery performances for the Total Trash Halloween Bash over two years ago. It would be understandable if Parypa, howling lead singer/keyboardist Jerry Roslie, and saxophonist Rob Lind stuck to churning out garage-rock touchstones like “The Witch” and “Have Love, Will Travel” for their adoring fans.
Instead, the band — rounded out by bassist/vocalist Freddie Dennis and drummer Dusty Watson — recently made the bold step of releasing This Is the Sonics, the crew's first proper studio album in nearly half a century. Recorded in Detroit with early White Stripes producer and former Dirtbombs bassist Jim Diamond, the raucous blast of fresh originals and fierce covers proved the group had lost none of its trademark snarl during the intervening decades.
The crowd at the gradually filling Fillmore pushed toward the stage as soon as the lights dimmed and opening act Barrence Whitfield & the Savages kicked things off. An East Coast institution that first came together around R&B shouter Whitfield and former DMZ and Lyres guitar hero Peter Greenberg during the early 1980s, the band dug into a dirty, distorted soul groove before the singer stepped to the microphone with a King Tut headdress and a giant Boston “B” hanging from a gold chain around his neck.
Propelled by Greenberg's grinding riffs and saxophonist Tom Quartulli's honking tenor, Whitfield's feverish delivery recalled Little Richard and the aforementioned Dirtbombs' leader Mick Collins as he screamed and grunted through blues-tinged garage stompers “Bloody Mary” and “The Corner Man.” Though the group briefly slowed the tempo down for the heartbroken ballad “I'm Sad About It,” by the time Whitfield and his Savages barreled through a spirited version of “Ramblin' Rose” (the Ted Taylor scorcher made famous to punk fans by the MC5), there was no question that the Sonics had made the right choice for tour support.
After a brief set change, the headliners took the stage and wasted no time maintaining the momentum. Decked out in sharp black suits with matching monochromatic ties, the Sonics dove straight into a vicious reading of “Cinderella” from their 1966 album Boom. Fans who hadn't seen the band before probably expected Roslie to take the vocals reigns on the early classic that he penned, but instead got treated to the bloodthirsty voice of Freddie Dennis. With his uncanny echo of Gary “Angry” Anderson from Australian cult hard rockers Rose Tattoo, the bassist's gravel-throated yowl gave every song he handled an urgent intensity.
Not that Roslie's pipes weren't still up to the task. The keyboardist showed off his caustic singing style on “Shot Down” and the fan favorite “Have Love, Will Travel,” bellowing with an unhinged vengeance that belied his years. In fact, all three classic-era members demonstrated a youthful verve throughout the energetic set. Guitarist Parypa stayed mostly stoic, but occasionally cracked a smile as he ripped through one slashing Chuck Berry riff after another. Saxophonist Lind matched Dennis in his onstage animation, blaring and squealing through each frenzied solo and playing to the crowd up front when he switched to lead vocals and blowing harmonica for “You've Got Your Head on Backwards.”
Lind also served as the main band spokesman, talking animatedly about the thrill of playing a hallowed hall like the Fillmore and chuckling as he apologized for repeatedly flogging the new album. He needn't have been embarrassed; the tunes the band played from the disc provided all the required sales pitch. “Bad Betty” and “I Got Your Number” offered up more lascivious swagger in two minutes than most modern bands can muster on a whole CD, while Dennis gave the Hank Ballard soul standard “Look At Little Sister” a menacing edge with his vocals.
The band was then joined onstage by ubiquitous SF punk legend Jello Biafra. After praising the Sonics as one of his biggest influences, the Dead Kennedys singer dedicated the early Motown hit “Money” to “all the Google bus people,” a sentiment that was greeted by a loud roar from the crowd. Driven by Watson's pounding drums, the group ratcheted up the energy even further with scorching versions of the often-covered garage standard “Leaving Here” and the Kinks classic “The Hard Way.” A nod to fellow Washington garage-rock heroes The Kingsmen followed with a take on “Louie Louie” before closing the main part of the set with the suitably wild “Psycho.”
It didn't take long for the foot-stomping, hollering audience to bring the Sonics back to the stage to finish the evening off with a few more tunes. Dennis wailed his way through the Ray Charles hit “I Don't Need No Doctor” (arguably the best song from the new album), inciting a mosh pit at the front of the stage that kept going through Roslie's final, ferocious one-two punch of “Strychnine” and “The Witch.” Inviting Barrence Whitfield & the Savages back out for a final bow, the garage-rock greats offered one last heartfelt thanks to their audience before sending them home sweaty and sated.
– It's always heartening to see a solid number of people walking out of a venue carrying vinyl. Record buyers must have outnumbered those who purchased CDs by 8 to 1.
– After the show, Barrence Whitfield walked the floor of the Fillmore, graciously thanking fans while talking up his forthcoming album projected for release this fall. If you're a fan of garage rock, '60s R&B and early rock, don't miss him if he and his band make a return visit to San Francisco.
Have Love, Will Travel
Be A Woman
You've Got Your Head on Backwards
Look At Little Sister
I Got Your Number
Money (with Jello Biafra on vocals)
The Hard Way
I Don't Need No Doctor