TVD Live: Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds at Comet Ping Pong, 9/20

I have a rudimentary understanding of the science behind how creative genius works, and it goes something like this; an idea in the brain gestates very slowly into a pebble-sized tumor, which is then expelled via the left ear into the world as a full-blown work of art. I know this to be true, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes in the case of the legendary Kid Congo Powers, the musical legend who has played, or collaborated with, seemingly every cool band of the post-punk era.

Powers’ musical resume is as confusing as it is impressive: he co-founded The Gun Club with the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce, left to join the Cramps, then returned to The Gun Club before quitting to join Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, then returned to The Gun Club while still playing with The Bad Seeds—and you get the idea. But what really makes Powers so fascinating is this: he spent years wandering the earth to and fro, endlessly searching for the perfect sound in this great band or that, when that perfect sound was with him the whole time, inside his head.

Since taking over as a frontman of his own band, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds—a nice nod, the band name, from a one-time glam kid and habitué of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco to the one and only Ziggy Stardust—Powers has demonstrated his formidable skills as a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist over the course of the four excellent LPs the quartet (Powers, Kiki Solis on bass, Ron Miller on drums, and Mark Cisneros on guitar and keyboards) has recorded since 2006.

And the band just keeps getting better; their most recent release, 2013’s Haunted Head, is their coolest yet. Its fetching fusion of spooky swampy hoodoo garage (that’s right, there’s a swamp in your garage! Complete with Spanish moss and cottonmouths! And even a stray gator or two! I wouldn’t go in there if I were you!), psychedelia, southern soul, and cool 1960s Chicano Rock will leave you wanting to drop acid, cruise East LA’s Whittier Boulevard with Thee Midniters on the radio in a low rider with a makeshift shrine to Santa Muerte on the front dash, and just plain dance, dance, dance, dance, dance. And I say do it! Do it all! You only live once, although with Santa Muerte on your side, who knows?

I guarantee you this: one listen to Haunted Head and the feedback-laden groove of “Su Su,” with Powers’ echoing vocals buried in the mix, and you’ll be hooked. If “Su Su” somehow fails to grab you by the ears and shake you into a new way of hearing, the lovely and melodic “Dance Me Swamply,” with its fantastic chorus and 60s vibe is sure to convert you to the Kid Congo Cult. If it doesn’t, odds are you’re a zombie but don’t know it, because your friends are too considerate to bring it up.

Anyway, the only thing better than listening to Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds on record is seeing them live, where the Kid makes the perfect host with his humorous patter and the band sets their songs aflame. So I was thrilled that Powers and Band were scheduled to make a stop on their latest tour right here in Powers’ adopted hometown of Washington, DC.

I missed the opening act, Ian Svenonius’ latest band Chain and the Gang, due to a horrifying ping-pong—yes, you can actually play ping-pong at Comet Ping Pong, while eating pizza yet—accident. Had I been wearing my glasses it would never have happened, but I decided to take my glasses off (even though I can’t see a thing without them) in accordance with the Tommy Prinzip, which holds that like that deaf, dumb, and blind kid I’d be able to expertly return, by means of pure reflex, murderous volleys I couldn’t even see. Unfortunately the Tommy Prinzip is bunk, and my ping-pong career lasted exactly one serve, with the served ball lodging itself in my right eye. I would have missed everything, Powers’ show included, had the famed Austrian oculist Eduard Jäger von Jaxtthal, who also happens to be a big fan of Kid Congo, not been in attendance. Jaxtthal was able to remove the lodged ping-pong ball using the famed Kuechler method, and I was able to catch Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds in all their blurry glory.

Powers opened with “The Rad Lord’s Return,” a sixties-style instrumental with a great melodic groove that demonstrated just how tight the band was, and that had Powers shaking to the music and the audience jumping. Powers then said, in reference to his old Gun Club compatriot Jeffrey Lee Pierce, “Jeffrey used to walk among us but now he’s just a ghost on the highway,” whereupon band launched into the Gun Club’s “Ghost on the Highway,” which boasted a big propulsive beat that made you feel like you were in the path of an out-of-control 18-wheeler. Powers then said something like, “If Jerry Lee Lewis and Phyllis Diller were to have a head-on collision you’d have a Killer Diller,” and the band threw itself into the great groove of “Killer Diller,” a big, bad brain-rattler with a beat you could literally feel in your feet, that’s how bad-ass loud Solis’ dead-on bass and Miller’s great drumming were. Meanwhile, Powers’ vocals were top-notch, and he was joined at the end by Cisneros in a chant of “Killer Diller Diller!”

“Even the Killer gets the blues sometimes,” said Powers during the brief monologue introducing “Su Su,” which opened with Powers playing some wonderful feedback-drenched guitar that ran through the song. He talked the lyrics against a backdrop of a killer groove that worked its way towards mammoth crescendos of noise. I’ve never heard a guitarist quite like Powers; his open tunings, and love of reverb and feedback, firmly establish him as one of rock’s wild men on the instrument. When the tune ended someone from the audience shouted, “Pretty good,” to which Powers responded, “That’s what they tell me,” before the band launched into the high-velocity punk of “I Don’t Like.” Powers barked out the lyrics while basically going mad on the guitar—my only beef about the show was that his guitar wasn’t high enough in the mix—before the song briefly slowed, with Cisneros playing a cool repeated guitar figure, then slowly built back up while Powers went into full shredding mode on his axe.

After “I Don’t Like” Powers said, “One thing I really do like is the garbage man,” at which point the band kicked into The Cramps “Garbageman,” a blunt blow to the cranium with an ominous guitar riff and a nice drone. And when I say ominous I mean really mean; this guitar riff was tough, the grade school bully grown up to sport a neck tattoo reading “Fuck off and die.” Meanwhile Powers delivered a bravura vocal performance, shouting, “Do you understand? I’m the garbageman!” Next up was “Loud and Proud,” a herky-jerky rockabilly tune with buried vocals, a wonderful high-pitched repeated guitar riff, and one incredibly tight rhythm section. Every time it came close to dissolving into chaos the band would reel it back in again, until it ended and Powers introduced the super-funky instrumental “Black Santa,” which highlighted Solis’ great bass playing and the rhythm section in general, the Kid’s freaky deaky guitar prowess, and Cisneros’ top notch rhythm guitar talents. Seriously, the rhythm section sounded like it came straight out of Muscle Shoals, while Powers laid some big freak out on top. The tune stopped, and slowly morphed into something else before heading back home and finally ending with Powers saying, “Merry Christmas!”

The band then launched into the whiplash fast psychoblues of The Gun Club’s immortal “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” with Powers delivering the vocals like a man possessed and Cisneros joining Powers on the great chorus: “She’s like heroin to me/She’s like heroin to me/She’s like heroin to me/She cannot miss a vein.” The song rumbled and rolled, and the audience members old enough (yours truly, fer instance) jumped up and down and shouted out the chorus along with Powers and Cisneros. Next up was the bizarre “I Found a Peanut,” with its staggering gait, cool guitar riff by Roberts, and spoken lyrics about, well, finding a peanut and eating it and getting sick from eating it and then dying and going to Heaven, and it was “all because I found a peanut, one day.” What else can be said about a song that brilliant? Only that Powers and Miller repeated line, “I found a peanut” like a couple of hillbillies amidst howls from the other band members.

Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds then played one they’d just recorded called “Bruce Juice,” which Powers announced would be released in “fifteen years of fifteen minutes.” One natty instrumental, it opened with Solis’ cool bass, then proceeded to lurch and roll along, with Cisneros playing a catchy guitar riff and the song always threatening but never quite dissolving into anarchy. The band then played “The Cucuy,” a song about a mythical ghost monster, and the Hispanic equivalent of the Boogieman. “The Cucuy” was a big sixties stomp with an irresistible groove and lots of spooky screams, and it served as a great introduction to the spooky atmospherics of “Haunted Head,” which drenched the audience in Twin Peaks-school reverb while the drums and bass did a ramshackle shuffle and Kid talk-sang the verses. Its best feature is its chorus, which Powers sang with Cisneros: “What’s inside your haunted head?/Are you alive or are you dead?/Are you a kissin’ and a huggin’?/Are you pushin’ and a shovin’?” after which Powers launched into one twisted solo before doing some shredding, and I could totally imagine this one being played in a dim go-go joint in a low-budget sixties zombie flick.

“Bubble Trouble” opened with one brilliant bass line by Solis, before the band came charging in, and the only way I can think to describe it is as sinisterly perky. The rhythm section held the fort while Cisneros alternated between guitar and tambourine and Powers went from doing the Swim and playing some truly formidable feedback as the song built to a climax, then another climax, and it was like good sex until the song ended and had a post-coitus cigarette while the band kicked into the sure-fire crowd pleaser that is its cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “We Love You.” Powers gave the vocals all he had, and then played a gnarly guitar before the band closed the show down by repeating “We love you” like 22 times while the audience shouted along and a guy in a really awful red shirt threw his hands over his head and lifted his face to the heavens, transported by bliss.

The band then returned to the stage to play the great Gun Club tune “For the Love of Ivy,” which opened with some low-key dissonance and Miller’s understated drumming until Powers exploded, “You look just like an Elvis from Hell!” This was followed by some rawkin’ stop and start, with Powers channeling the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and pointing his hand like a gun at the audience as he sang, “I’m gonna buy me a gun just as long as my arm/And kill everyone who ever done me harm!” The band made a tremendous din, Powers singing, “I hear what you saying” over and over as the band rolled over hearts and minds like a monster blues truck before the song became a slow motion car accident, then ended in cacophony. The band then played “LSDC,” which had Powers in spoken word mode before a backdrop of one big fucking groove, with Solis and Miller in perfect German lockstep and Cisneros playing one supercool guitar riff that just wouldn’t stop. Then the song stopped and started again, with Kid speed singing while everything around him got real Hunter S. Thompson weird, what with Solis producing a big, bad rumble like one of the rumbles in West Side Story while Powers played lots of freaky feedback.

With that the show ended, and all I can say having experienced it is that Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds are a one-of-a-kind American treasure, like the late, great actress Susan Tyrell (the band’s “Su Su” is about her), the Manson Family, or Centralia, Pennsylvania, the nearly abandoned town beneath which a coal fire has been burning continuously since 1962. Kid and band go from town to town setting fires in audience members’ minds, and once lit those fires never go out, and I highly recommend that you check them out when they come to your town.

Susan Tyrell’s mother’s last words to the actress were, “’Su Su, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.” The same might be said of Powers, who in “Rare as the Yeti” sings about having a “taste for the grotesque,” and who has dedicated himself to writing truly great songs that could be gathered beneath the umbrella of trash culture. Although who knows, I could be wrong, and there’s nothing he likes more than putting on a suit and mowing the lawn.

PHOTO: MELL TURBO

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