It’s almost midnight and we are waiting for hard rocking dynamos, the Hot Snakes, to take the stage of the grand Bowery Ballroom. Thanks to my stupid day job, I am so tired I could fall on my face. I can’t take much more of this waiting. We’ve endured openers The Lost Sounds and the frightful antics of Beehive and the Barracudas. But the band we came to see is lagging somewhere backstage.
16 Aug 2002: Bowery Ballroom New York
While I wait, I notice that the guy in front of me keeps turning around and is scanning the balcony in a creepy back and forth sort of way. He is inches from me and I keep accidentally meeting his eye. What is he looking at? He appears to be the oldest one here, a balding guy with wire frame glasses and beady eyes.
My boyfriend leans over and whispers, “How long before I become that guy?” I know what he means—how long until he becomes the lone old guy at shows surrounded by condescending 15-year olds? Or is that condescending twentysomethings, in this case? But for all we know, this guy could be the most dedicated fan here. Maybe ten years ago this old dude saw Hot Snakes guitarists John Reis and Rick Froberg in the angular San Diego post punk band Drive Like Jehu and Reis in creepy garage outfit Rocket From The Crypt. This was back when those bands first exploded onto the scene and most of the kids here tonight were still cutting their baby teeth on cookies.
Now that Sonic Youth are all pushing past middle age, and The Rolling Stones are on some kind of permanent geriatric farewell tour, can you put an expiration date on rock? Is it still the music of rebellion when played by people over thirty and enjoyed by fans that have long turned in their fake IDs? The opening track on Hot Snakes’ latest release Suicide Invoice, “I Hate the Kids” seems to push these kind of questions around against the moody backdrop of guitar string bends. It both laments the inevitability of old age and still rolls its eyes at the kids too young to remember and too caught up in style over substance. These are kids who buy punk rock at the mall, and us old kids hate them.
This is a fitting statement from singer and guitarist Rick Froberg, who is stuck, in spite of his showing a little gray around the edges, in a nasal kind of adolescence. His voice rages and pleads like a teenager. It is disarming and defiant because it pushes and strains against any limit placed on it. And that is something that rebels of any age can appreciate.
It’s a good crowd tonight. It’s a relief to attend a New York show where the members of the audience don’t all have asymmetrical haircuts and think that new wave is the new black. This crowd is not here for electronic dance numbers, but a blistering rock sound. They like the Pixies-influenced songs by The Lost Sounds, a California four piece. The singer and guitar player is an assuming guy who has almost operatic moments “Am I drowning? Am I bleeding?” when not channeling Frank Black. The keyboardist and back up singer looks a little like Chrissy Hynde, which kind of gives her an air of authority as she pounds on the Moog.
Halfway through the set, they switch instruments. I don’t like it when band members switch instruments, but it works almost better in a way. When she plays guitar, the keyboardist has a strange kind of hunching posture that is almost distracting. But she is confident and they take hardly any breaks between their ‘60s garage rock numbers. The bassist and drummer are steady and adept at handling the twists and turns that are thrown their way by the guitar and keyboards. At one point they take a detour into a slow waltz that is nice and spooky. Overall, it is a good, if not compelling performance.
Next up is the baffling plastic inexcusable otherwise known as Beehive and the Barracuda. Although they claim repeatedly to be from “Blythe, Michigan”, they are in fact a motley gang of San Diego punk rock royalty. Their leader is left-handed Hot Snakes bass player Gar Woods who has reclaimed guitar duties alongside Dustin Millsap (semi-official Rocket From The Crypt dancing boy). This is maybe a little too incestuous, as “the ‘Cudas” also happen to be on the Swami record label, run by Hot Snakes guitarist John Reis. They also play every date on the Hot Snakes tour.
We should have taken it as a warning when Millsap comes out sporting a Dire Straits headband and sunglasses getup and says, “We’re gonna get real weird in a minute, we’re marinating.” For the next half-hour, the audience stands mostly still while the band tells the same joke over and over. It is one of those jokes you’ve heard before, the kind without a punch line. It involves the bass player doing his best Cars imitation. Wood and Millsap pretend they are home in their basement with a six pack and a four-track. They sing nonsense lyrics and make spastic rubber band noises with their guitars to each other’s amusement. Keyboardist Kerry Davis (The Red Aunts) plays all songs with just her two index fingers while the drummer concentrates on looking like a bored David Byrne.
Celebrity doppelgangers aside, Beehive and the Barracuda are a party band that are probably more suited for playing your friend’s backyard than to a large venue full of expectant people. Their self-described “weak plastic sound” is met with impatient heckling and profanity. But things are kept light when Wood retorts, “We’ve been around since ‘68, how long have you been around?” Millsap urges everyone to “keep it weak.”
By the time Hot Snakes take stage, they are met with great relief and excitement. Gar Wood looks a little sheepish later when guitarist John Reis jokes that Hot Snakes may not be a party band, but “feel free to leave with a broken neck or something.” But Hot Snakes leave little room for talking because few gaps exist between each intensely driven song. The first three numbers are a rapid-fire succession of the tracks exactly as they appear in order from the beginning of Suicide Invoice. “I Hate the Kids” is first which merges into “Gar Forgets His Insulin” which tumbles immediately into “XOX”.
There is urgency to the swells of noise that build and lash out from the tightly woven guitar lines and booming drums. This inspires a contingent in the front to air-drum J. Sinclair’s impressive fills and rolls for songs like “No Hands”. Each brief song is a compact epic. They erupt, climax and stun in the span of about two minutes. Each is somehow more intense than the last.
The pinnacle of the performance is the appearance of the Drive Like Jehu song “Bullet Train to Vegas”. A decade later, it still is a crowd pleaser. For “Salton City”, the final song of the fifteen-song set, the kids up front scream the cheeky chorus “Give us a kiss!”
Despite playing for about forty minutes, Hot Snakes are happy to return to the stage and oblige the crowd further in a four-song encore. At this point my legs are weak. I had forgotten my earlier exhaustion, having been buoyed by the sheer energy of the show. But after the last notes of “Paperwork”, I am stumbling to the door. My body may be getting older, but my ears maintain their ageless craving for a solid rock show.