The iconic band’s return to The Pyramid Scheme Thursday unleashed Black Sabbath-meets-Capt. Beefheart charm with Jon Spencer’s own brand of minimalist rock opening things. The review by John Serba.
I’ve been a fan of the Melvins for 25 years, and I still don’t understand them. That’s a compliment.
While other bands with careers stretching back to the early 1980s have coasted creatively or split up or reunited or returned to their roots or propagated other such cliches, the Melvins have pushed restlessly, progressively forward, challenging themselves and their audience with a kind of affable mercilessness.
To know them is to love them. And to love them is to accept the fact that you may not really ever know what the devil is going on while they’re on stage.
The band is a staple at The Pyramid Scheme, and Thursday night’s show was its fourth stop at the venue in as many years. It was the second time I’ve seen the Melvins delight sold-out crowds of 420 people in that room.
In years previous, I saw them bum out 7,000 Tool fans as an opening act on a tour of hockey barns; during a 30-minute set, the Melvins never addressed the crowd, and, if memory serves, they didn’t even bother to stop playing until they walked off. I also once saw them perplex 1,700 Primus fans with a similarly mischievous lack of apology, an extraordinary example of trolling, circa 1993.
I intend such reminiscence to be a succinct description of their appeal. To know the Melvins is to understand that their brand of musical shenanigans will be appreciated by the few weirdos who wondered what might happen if Black Sabbath and Captain Beefheart had a love child and only ever put lemon-scent dishwashing liquid in its baby bottle.
This isn’t to imply that a Melvins live performance is incomprehensible or sloppy. On the contrary, the core duo of singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover are so proficient on their instruments, it wouldn’t be at all hyperbolic to say they’re criminally underrated. Together, they rock mighty and tight, and are clearly the Eddie Van Halen and Neal Peart of all the bands that sound like Black Sabbath and Captain Beefheart had a love child and only ever put lemon-scent dishwashing liquid in its baby bottle.
MASHING OF SONIC BUM CAKES, VIGOROUS FAN REACTION
The current iteration of the ever-evolving band features a pair of bassists, Jeff Pinkus of Butthole Surfers and Steven McDonald of Redd Kross. Call it Big Bottom Melvins if you must – and surely you must, because all that low end was a meritorious mashing of sonic bum cakes we attendees won’t soon leave behind.
As for songs, I can confirm oldie “Anaconda” and newie “Don’t Forget to Breathe” were performed, and the roiling, chugging beatdown of “Honey Bucket” – from the band’s biggest selling album, 1993’s “Houdini” – inspired the evening’s most vigorous audience reaction.
They also neatly acknowledged the bassists’ former outfits by covering Redd Kross’ punk cymbal-smasher “What They Say,” and confusing the world with “Stop Moving to Florida,” a mashed interpretative blend of James Gang and Butthole Surfers, which is just the type of inspired lunacy one expects from the Melvins. Or doesn’t quite expect, to be honest.
And here’s where I admit that I lost track of the noise-ridden, heavily instrumental, head-scratching, feedbacking, eye-crossing final stretch of their 75-minute set. But that’s supposed to happen, I’d assert, because a Melvins concert shouldn’t be easily digestible, or necessarily comprehensible. I walked away with the reiteration that every grunge band and sludge metal band that ever existed ripped off the Melvins, and therefore owes them a beer. Otherwise, I defer to Homer Simpson’s reaction to “Twin Peaks”: “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
JON SPENCER UNCORKS MINIMALIST, COARSE SET
At first blush, slotting Jon Spencer as opening act for the Melvins’ tour seems odd. But in execution, it’s inspired — considering the confusional greatness of the performances, and the great confusion they inspired.
Spencer is touring for his new solo project, and will release his debut record, “Spencer Sings the Hits!”, this fall. Spencer deviates from his more famous projects – the clattering rawk of the Blues Explosion, the post-punk garage slop of Pussy Galore and the hooky, guitar-driven odd-rock of Boss Hog – by rubbing his signature raw, blues-derived sound to tatters. The project has a couple Michigan ties: drummer M. SORD (real name Mike Gard) hails from Kalamazoo, and the upcoming album was recorded at Benton Harbor studio Key Club Recording Company.
His 45-minute set was minimalist and coarse, unrefined rock with lurching rhythms and awkward spaces between notes (Bob Dylan’s recent baffling live performances come to mind), topped with Spencer’s hallmark affected yelps. The set list touched on the frontman’s past (JSBX’s “Dang,” Pussy Galore’s “Pretty F— Look”) and included new tracks, among them “Do the Trash Can,” “Ghost” and “Time 2 Be Bad.”
It was far from the danceable shuck-and-jive kitsch of JSBX: SORD’s drumming often played everywhere but on the beat. Spencer’s guitar was all jagged skronk. What’s best described as “miscellaneous percussion” was played on an empty automobile gas tank and, yes, a trash can. It’s surely the type of anti-virtuoso racket that’s harder to play than it looks.
PHOTO GALLERY: Melvins, Jon Spencer at The Pyramid Scheme
Photos by Derek Ketchum and Katy Batdorff