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November 12, 2004

Blues Explosion solidify status as rock saviors

As the world gets crazier each day, as music becomes ever more bound to the principles of postmodernism, as I hear the guy with the leaf-blower inch ever closer to my window as I try to finish this sentence, I ask myself: Is there anything that doesn't change? Can we still fall back on that most basic yet paradoxical pillar of Western culture—rock?

Well, I suppose we can find more bands playing "rock 'n' roll" music than we could ever possibly need, but do they really rock? The Blues Explosion (now without "Jon Spencer" in the name, though he's still in the group) recognize the clichés of rock. They embrace them. And they do so with such a potent combination of unbridled fervor and honed instrumental ability that you just may forget that rock is dead. At the Metro last Friday night I saw the past, present, and future of rock rolled into one being: The Blues Explosion.

Seriously, I've never seen a live band so authentically combine music with attitude. Ever since (and often because of) his days in the infamous "hate-rock" band Pussy Galore, Jon Spencer has been accused of irony. And it is true that, at first, the mind cannot accept the sincerity of this man as he screams platitudes like "Baby, it's hot" over and over like a demonic preacher, all in a voice reminiscent of Elvis (Presley). But, as Jon would say, "Damn! Those Blues Explosion boys can play!" While Pussy Galore were notorious for their sloppy, lo-fi aesthetic, the Blues Explosion are tight, with bursts of noise and funky grooves giving proper accompaniment to Jon Spencer's impassioned shouting.

Just so we get this out of the way, the Blues Explosion are not a "blues band." Their name is a bit of a joke. Appropriately, however, behind the joke lies something more. While they combine elements of blues, rock, rockabilly, funk, punk, noise, hip-hop, and Bulgarian modal jazz (just kidding) on Friday, there was both an unpretentious "we're just a bunch of guys playing music" feel to their performance (hence, "Blues") and a tangible "Explosion" element which I believe I've already touched on a bit.

Two guitars and a drum set. With only a brief break before the encore—and without even stopping between most of the songs—the Blues Explosion barreled through riff after riff. But this wasn't a parade of short bursts as much as the seamless acceleration and deceleration of music, building and climaxing under Jon Spencer's sure hand. The man had enough charisma alone to completely bewitch the audience. But with the help of Judah Bauer's savage, slashing guitar work and Russell Simin's God-like (seriously!) drumming, this band was a force to be reckoned with.

So I reckoned with it the only way I knew how: rhythmically moving my body and head in an involuntary manner (I hesitate to call it dancing) that might have been completely ridiculous but makes perfect sense while listening to the Blues Explosion. And despite the fact that the majority of the audience—perhaps too dumbstruck with awe to move—did not go beyond the occasional head-bobbing, I contend that it is downright unnatural to resist the primal energy the Blues Explosion thrive on and live for. Songwriting, melody, and every other component we use to analyze music were thrillingly disregarded as Jon, Judah, and Russell maniacally pursued the essential sheer visceral power inherent in rock 'n' roll.

This is not to say that last Friday the Blues Explosion just pounded away at their instruments with savage fury. No, they were instead downright acrobatic in their deft avoidance of every extraneous musical element that could have corrupted their music. They played with the hard groove of funk but with the intensity of punk. Flexibility was key as they shifted from a bluesy strut to a head-banging surge of distorted guitars. And Jon Spencer, recognizing the key to their music (and to rock itself), toed the fine line being between being "in" and "out" of control.

This invaluable dynamic was epitomized at the concert's greatest moment, which occurred about three-fourths of the way into the encore. As Judah slashed out distorted rhythm guitar and Russell kept the beat, Jon used a Theremin (an old-school synth controlled by the motions of the performer's hand) to unleash pure sonic beauty in the form of white noise atop the already raucous backing music. In that paradox between noise and music, the sound of the Blues Explosion was bliss. The experience was total freedom.

Well, I was legally high for the next several days thanks to that one moment—and to the warped yet undeniably compelling vision of Jon Spencer and his band. Whatever the merits of their recordings, it would be foolish to miss the Blues Explosion live. If you're ever feeling stressed, depressed, or even worse, bored, at least take comfort in knowing there is a cure out there: rock. And after Friday, I know that a Blues Explosion concert is among the best treatments to be found. Keep truckin', Jon!