The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Blues Explosion, JSBX, America’s Hardest-Working Rock ‘n’ Roll Band. Call them what you will, the Number One Blues-Flavored Hipster Rock Band in the Free World have long been cannibalistic postmodernists, chewing up music history and spitting it back out in the form of little corrosive nuggets of ADHD noise that reflect the ADHD times in which we live. They’ve gobbled up blues and hip-hop, and they’ve blenderized the rotting corpse of rock ‘n’ roll, so in many ways it was almost inevitable that for Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015 they should revert their all-consuming jaws onto the very NYC no-wave/punk/noise rock scene that birthed them.
Their latest album has them reminiscing on their hometown’s CBGB underground, and it has them using this inspiration to produce some of their most exquisitely honed material to date. Unsurprisingly enough, its sprightly panache also supplied the backbone of their set in (snowy) Lausanne, Switzerland, on a drunken Saturday night.
Having been aptly supported by the swooning noir-Americana of Gemma Ray and the motorik garage rock of Roy & the Devil’s Motorcycle, the band took the stage with little in the way of pomp or circumstance. They immediately launched into the swagger of “Chicken Dog,” a longtime concert-staple from 1996’s Now I Got Worry that set the tone for a near-perfectly balanced tour through older and newer material.
I say “tour,” but given the band’s famed dynamism in the live context, the night wasn’t so much a passive trip down memory lane as an active refashioning and reimagining of their entire corpus. Cast-iron favorites like “Soul Typecast,” “Flavor,” and “Blues X Man” were stretched-out, chopped-up and stomped-down, while even a freshly minted newbie like “Crossroad Hop” was given the cavalier Blues treatment, extended into a grooved semi-epic that had Russell Simins pounding out some choice beats for the dancing Italian woman beside me (this Italian would later be personally delivered one of Simins’ drumsticks). That said, for all his mighty presence, and for all Spencer’s to-ing and fro-ing around his mic, neither man could sadly do anything to dislodge a large, passed-out Swiss type who’d been slumped over the edge of the stage from the gig’s very overture.
Joking aside, it was from their energized mashing up of past and present sounds that the Blues Explosion’s attitude towards history became fully manifest. In the rejigging of “Train #2” from Extra Width or the drawing-out of “White Jesus” from Freedom Tower you could hear a band who had respect for history only insofar as it furnished source material for them to play around with and reinvent. They paid their own unique homage to the Beastie Boys and Link Wray with a medley-cover of “She’s On It/Jack the Ripper,” and they even whipped out a version of “What Love is” by punk-legends The Dead Boys. Aside from simply being a lot of giddy fun to watch and hear, these various re-stylings reminded the crowd (or at least me) of one of the extra meanings of “live” music. That is, it reminded me that to play “live” music isn’t simply to perform sounds here-and-now in front of an audience, but also to evolve these sounds, to transform them into a living, breathing entity that changes with the times.
This is precisely what the Blues Explosion do, updating their back catalog while infusing such future greatest hits as “Do The Get Down” with a power and vitality that can’t quite be matched by a more static studio recording, no matter its quality. However, disregarding what the band have to tell us about how postmodern society relates to its own past, there was the simple, unmistakeable fact that their intensity and focus on stage eventually had the crowd moshing around like overexcited schoolchildren. This no doubt had much to do with Spencer, who’s still very much the showman, dropping to his knees and gee-ing up the theremin at every available opportunity. Yet what sometimes remains unremarked in accounts of the band is just how tight Judah Bauer and Russell Simins are, their unrelenting drive being enough by itself to move an audience. As a duo, they locked their shit together while Spencer strutted around to maximum effect, while as a trio with the man himself, they proved once again that they’re the hardest-working rock ‘n’ roll band in America. Incredibly, they played 25 songs in one hour and 20 minutes, and they probably could have kept on going for longer. I’m sure that we could have kept on listening to them for longer as well.
01. Chicken Dog
02. Dial Up Doll
03. She’s On It/Jack the Ripper (Beastie Boys/Link Wray cover)
04. Born Bad
06. Black Mold
08. Crossroad Hop
09. Betty Vs The NYPD
10. Soul Typecast
11. Wax Dummy
12. What Love Is (Dead Boys cover)
13. Train #2
14. Money Rock’n’Roll
16. Tales of Old New York: The Rock Box
17. White Jesus
20. The Ballad of Joe Buck
21. Do The Get Down
22. High Gear
23. Down in the Beast
24. Get Your Pants Off
25. Blues X Man