ARTS

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February 25, 2003

A night of blues implosion

The Hideout can be a strange place around midnight. Located off North Avenue, tucked away in a dark alley with nothing but a "COLD BEER" sign to attest to its existence, the venue teems with assorted characters. You've got your retired bikers, all faded leather and facial hair; the fashion-challenged punks, covered in dyes and tattered clothing; and of course the standard-issue indie crowd, bedhead hairdos and zip-up sweatshirts galore. This was the throng assembled to see 20 Miles, an offshoot of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

On paper, the group's core members are the Bauer brothers, with Judah handling the guitar/vocals and Donovan on drums. On this particular evening, however, Donovan was MIA, and the only explanation offered was, "We lost our drummer last night in Kansas City." Sensing perhaps that the crowd wanted to know more, Judah added, "That sounds sort of ominous, doesn't it?" But rather than call off the date or the remainder of the tour, Bauer instead flew in a replacement drummer from NYC. "He sounds pretty good considering we didn't have time for a practice."

Not that the drumming required any sophisticated touches. Bauer's straightforward melodies didn't leave much room for interpretation or improvisation. The songs clocked in at under three minutes each and he made few attempts to break free of their rigid structures. This was rock 'n' roll stripped to its most essential. Sure, each song had its own little story. One was about Bauer's move to New York at the tender age of 17, which he claimed to have just gotten over last week. The next was his official "gospel song." "This is dedicated to all you agnostics out there. If you haven't been to church in a while, this'll fill you in," he cracked. But any verbal or inspirational distinctions between the songs were counteracted by the rather standard, predictable chord progressions and blues inflections.

It didn't help matters that the performance was almost painfully self-conscious. On very rare occasions did anyone on stage appear to be immersed in the music. The solos were delivered with a mercenary-like calm while Bauer and company chose stiff poses over more expressive gestures. Predictably, the audience followed suit, scratching beards and folding arms instead of bobbing to the grooves.

It was easy to see why Bauer started a band outside JSBX. These songs were unburdened by the need to rock and stood in sharp contrast to the furious onslaught of the JSBX catalog. The greater emphasis on the blues isn't necessarily a bad thing; however, over the course of an entire set, the explosive side of his primary project was sorely missed.