Mike Watt is a well-rounded man. On and Off Bass, his beautiful book of photographs and poetic memoir has just been published, and in celebration Three Rooms Press threw a party that (naturally) took the form of a gig. Unsurprisingly, Hellride East, which featured the bassist with J Mascis/Murph from Dinosaur Jr. and a revolving cast of friends and admirers, became as much a tribute to Watt’s formative influences as a celebration of the multiple talents of this ground-level punk cornerstone.
The evening began with Dead Trend, a new band led by author Michael T. Fournier that nailed the sound of ‘80s style hardcore punk so well that for fifteen minutes or so it seemed like the group had traveled to Le Poisson Rouge through a time warp formed by ex-staffers of Flipside fanzine. And if presenting a boldfaced copy of the soundtrack to the Reagan-era All Ages Show circuit reads like a rather underwhelming idea, please understand that Dead Trend were formed as an meta-fictional extension of a band first conceived in Fournier’s book Hidden Wheel.
And again, they really did sound like a bunch of kids who would’ve played first on a five band bill headlined by Watt’s Minutemen in a Knights of Columbus circa 1984. Dead Trend fit roughly a dozen songs into their short set and touched upon many of that era’s defining tics; a titular theme song, some Descendants action, a campaign tune (“Dead Trend for President”) and obligatory potshots at psychedelia, prog-rock and Paul McCartney. If ultimately no big deal, it was quite a nice appetizer.
This was the third time Brooklyn’s Appomattox has played with Mike Watt, and it’s not hard to see why. A trio, they specialize in a tough but melodic indie-rock sound, registering at moments like a heavier, more stripped down Spoon and at other times messing around with a post-punk paradigm vaguely reminiscent of Gang of Four. Their guitarist doubled on keyboards, giving the band an added kick. Keeping in mind my anticipation for what was to come, I still could’ve used another song or two, so color me impressed.
Shortly thereafter, the man of the night planted himself down on a seat center stage, and for a few minutes it appeared that Watt might read some of his poetry or possibly engage in some form of spoken word endeavor. Instead he was joined by his friend and longtime music scribe/underground cultural generator Byron Coley for a short, casual chat.
It was clear that Coley already knew the answers behind many of the questions he was asking, but in the spirit of the occasion and the tradition of passing down crucial information orally, he broached them anyway. And it was a real blast to soak up the interaction; topics included pelicans, touring, The Reactionaries, R. Meltzer, flannel, Wire, punk as a mindset instead of a specifically delineated sound, Raymond Pettibon, and inevitably, John Coltrane and The Stooges.
Those last two topics essentially shaped the course of the rest of the evening, for Watt, guitarist J Mascis and a revolving procession of drummers and vocalists plowed into a set of highly inspired Stooges covers. Opening with “Real Cool Time” featuring Don Fleming (Velvet Monkeys, B.A.L.L., Gumball, and current director of The Alan Lomax Archive) and following with “TV Eye” featuring John Petkovic (Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde), the pattern was established and the bar set high. By the third song “Loose”, ably sung by longtime Watt cohort Thurston Moore, it became clear that this was truly a night for the punk/indie/undie scrapbooks.
And Thurston’s vocals became a recurring motif. Not only did he share the mic with Watt on a fine take of “Not Right”, he also threw down a very worthy reading of rocker “Down on the Street.” But it wasn’t just older heads like Moore and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley climbing on stage. Watt’s also very interested in connecting with a younger generation (as they are with him), so it was a gas to see talented new jacks Sharon Van Etten and Kurt Vile tackle “Dirt” and “No Fun” respectively.
Along the way it became obvious the performers were getting as much of a charge from the proceedings as the audience, and that the night wasn’t just about a cavalcade of indie-rock stars paying public tribute; a real highlight came via “1970”, shouted out with style by the tour manager of Dinosaur Jr. And when the band temporarily left the stage after Watt’s rendition of “Little Doll” there was a palpable sense that the best was yet to come.
“Fun House” more than delivered, combining Watt’s unique and captivating punk methodology with his love of Coltrane’s eternal genius, which also happened to be a major influence on The Stooges, particularly their album Fun House, that classic LP covered in full (if logically out of sequence) by Hellride East. The expansive hugeness of the Watt/Murph rhythmic tag-team was soaked in J. Mascis’ spot-on extensions of Ron Asheton’s caustic punk psychedelicisms as Petkovic’s keening clarinet tapped into a jazz-inspired freedom that was unconcerned with the limiting factors of virtuosity. Instead, it celebrated the throwing off of inhibition and promoted a reevaluation of the restraints of genre. Messrs Moore and Watt are two prime examples of the equation Coltrane + Stooges x(punk + practice) = Freedom, their tandem vocalizing throughout this version of “Fun House” proving them a pair of true street-walking cheetahs with hearts overflowing with love.
And “L.A. Blues”, the Stooges’ most explicitly Coltrane-inspired moment, wrapped up the night with anarchic panache. It found Coley back up on stage and screaming his lungs out as Petkovic, Murph, Mascis and Watt wailed on, the music heading for Other Planes of There.
Afterward, it was a stone cinch that even the most celebrity averse punk veteran would get into line to have their copy of On and Off Bass signed by its indefatigable and inspirational author. But there’s a big difference between a run of the mill celebrity and a rare and essential proletarian hero who leads by example, impacting this and future generations by just showing up for the gig.
Photos: Nate S. Rhodes