A mere novice, I’ve only seen the Fleshtones three times, but I’m fairly confident that they never disappoint. Take, for instance, my first Fleshtones show, at Detroit’s Magic Stick. It was the fourth of July weekend and only about 15 people showed up, but the NYC foursome played as though they were at a raucous house party with their best friends, hauling mics and instruments out onto the dance floor, jumping on tables, and generally having a great time. After nearly 30 years of playing what they call “Super Rock”—music that owes a debt to ‘60s garage rock but doesn’t slavishly imitate it—the Fleshtones know a thing or two about getting a party started. The biggest challenge the band faced during its latest visit to Chicago wasn’t one of firing up a small crowd (turnout was strong even if the place wasn’t packed), but of trying to connect with the audience on a personal level at a venue that precluded it, and they fared well.
Original members Peter Zaremba (vocals, organ, harmonica), Keith Streng (guitar, vocals), and Bill Milhizer (drums), along with mid-‘80s recruit Ken Fox (bass) are riding high on a strong new album, Do You Swing? (Yep Roc), so maybe it’s appropriate they played the larger Double Door and not the Empty Bottle as they did last time they swung through town. Even if more people were able to attend, though, the Double Door was less suitable for the Fleshtones’ audience-inclusive shenanigans. As usual, everyone except Milhizer headed into the crowd at some point to play, dance, and whisper God knows what to the audience, but those who were standing behind sound equipment at the back of large room or had their vision blocked by poles missed out. Still, the band did its best to get everyone involved in the raucous fun.
The fellows got things started with “New Scene” from 1983’s heralded Hexbreaker album. Personally, I would pay good money just to watch them perform that great album in its entirety, so I was excited that they started with such a bang, but was disappointed when no other Hexbreaker material surfaced during the set. It’s no doubt a difficult job to choose a set list when your recording career covers nearly 25 years, and to their credit, the Fleshtones have dug far back in their catalog and come up with a different set list each time I’ve seen them. Highlights this time around included “I’m Not a Sissy” and “Theme from ‘The Vindicators’”, on which they were joined on Farfisa by a member of opening band the Cynics, with whom they also had to share a drum kit thanks to a goof-up by their equipment rental company. The band also expectedly hit on several songs from the new album, including “Destination Greenpoint”, “Right on Woman”, and the title track, but not their excellent cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”—perhaps because it would shred the hell out of Streng’s voice?
What never ceases to amaze me about the Fleshtones is how they can put on a fun, fresh show night after night in city after city. They watch the opening bands, they drink (at one point, Zaremba was taking a swig of anything he was handed), they dance, they hop on top of the bar, they perform synchronized movements and their patented “Power Stance”, and they sometimes smile when they’re wandering through the crowd pre-show and don’t even know you’re watching them. You know the Old Navy slogan “Shopping is fun again”? Well, each time the Fleshtones breeze through town rock ‘n’ roll is fun again.