If the blues had a baby and they called it rock’n’roll, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is a bastard grandchild. Since first tearing down the comfortable old home of American roots music over 20 years ago, the New York-based trio have been constructing an alternative version, like a distorted mirror image. Their innovative style of scuzzy garage rock inspired the likes of The White Stripes and The Black Keys, but unlike them JSBE have always been too leftfield to cross over from cult to commercial success.
Over the years, the band’s live appearances in London have been relatively rare, but 2012 has seen them hit the capital three times. First at Scala back in March, then launching their seventh studio album Meat and Bone at the tiny basement venue of Birthdays in Dalston at the end of September, and now at the Electric Ballroom – the only UK gig of their American/European tour.
The first half of their explosive 75-minute set includes all 12 tracks of their new stripped-down and muscular album – after an eight-year gap, this is a real return to form, showing a revitalized JSBE. There are dynamic accounts of the riff-heavy Black Mold, the psyched up Boot Cut and the funky, James Brown-influenced Get Your Pants Off. Equally pulsating are older songs such as the Grinderman-style erotic horror of She Said, the breakneck-driving Bellbottoms and the hip hop Unclear, as well as a cover of The Beastie Boys‘ She’s On It.
Apart from reconstructed blues and rock’n’roll, amidst the distortion are elements of noise rock (following on from Jon Spencer’s first band Pussy Galore), punk and rockabilly, which he has explored more extensively in his side projects Boss Hog and Heavy Trash, respectively). Compelling new grooves jostle with chord sequences we didn’t know existed and unsettling time-signature changes.
Wearing tight black leather trousers and hollerin’ and hootin’ like a subversive shaman or swamp preacher, Spencer’s charismatic performance revels in the disturbingly dark delights of the soul and body. His metallic guitar clash with Judah Bauer, together with Russell Simins’s pell-mell drumming, give the band a ferocious rhythmic power. This kind of creative jamming can only be done by talented musicians who know each other’s way of playing inside out. The dangerous thrill of this musical detonation on stage vibrates through a responsive crowd who appreciate the intensity of the experience.