“Playing their classic album … in its entirety”: once an exciting prospect, ‘full album’ gigs – so often the stock-in-trade of the reformed or ‘heritage’ act – are getting a bit old hat now.
For one thing it’s surprising that anyone still bothers, following the format’s ne plus ultra “Sparks Spectacular” in 2008 – wherein the Maels worked their way through their catalogue chronologically over 21 nights – and the bottom of the barrel is starting to look pretty bare (Wheatus playing their “classic” début, anyone?). There’s the crushing predictability of it all to boot – it’s great to hear all of, say, Marquee Moon or Dog Man Star, but all too often it’s at the expense of anticipation’s thrill.
And if knowing exactly what you’re going to hear – and in what order – on the way to a gig has lost its allure, then consider the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: you’re fairly likely to be none the wiser during, or indeed after the show; not for the JSBX the usual introductory airs and graces.
Setlists, like bass players, may be one thing that this band can happily do without, but there isn’t a moment during a frenetic 90 minutes in Camden’s Electric Ballroom that the trio appear to be in anything other than total control, as they tether the swaggering tropes of blues-rock to the tense, ferocious template and timing of New York hardcore.
Performing in front of the Stars and Stripes, albeit up-ended and backwards, the band’s setup on stage – Judah Bauer on guitar, Russell Simins a beast behind a slimmed-down drum kit and Jon Spencer on lead guitar, theremin and slap-back echoed Sun studios vocals – may be simple, but their music, 24 years on, is a dense brew of garage-rock sleaze – which Spencer also explored with Pussy Galore and Boss Hog – swilled around with Stax soul, rockabilly, Memphis blues, punk and funk.
Onstage patter is kept within Spencer’s usual range of “Dang!”s, “thangyewvermuch”s and “Blues Explosion!”s, and songs allowed to run together naturally, but never in a needlessly loose and jammy way. There are occasional familiar numbers amid the primeval ooze: early on, there’s Black Mold, from 2012’s Meat+Bone, a raging, twisted take on climate change, while 1994’s Orange provides the rolling groove of Flavor, whose steady clatter Simins maintains while contributing the off-kilter rap originally added by one Beck Hansen. The drummer also takes lead vocals on a cover of Rocket From The Tombs’ proto-punk What Love Is, the closest the band come here to heads-down thrash.
The set leans (or appears to) most heavily, though, on this year’s excellent Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015, which wrapped the JSBX’s contorted blues-punk in a Sugar Hill shuffle. We’re all asked to pay our respects on Funeral, while Tales of Old New York: The Rock Box is reverent fun (“CBGB that’s the place to be, but you got to make a left on the Bowery”), with Bauer choking J.B.s-style sax squeals from his Telecaster. The four to the floor strut of White Jesus is possibly the best of the bunch, here greatly extended from its recorded 98 seconds, Spencer abandoning his guitar and carving through the mix with screeching theremin.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Jon Spencer says in summation, “do me one solid favour; I want you to think about what you saw tonight. Think about what you heard … tell your mother, your father, your neighbours what you heard tonight: the Blues Explosion!”. Even if we remember nothing else, as we pick up the debris, we may well go and do exactly that.