[4 August 2009]
The Fleshtones will be rockin’ and good-timin’ until either St. Peter offers them a tequila-shot-entry into heaven, or Lucifer drags their dancing ass’ down to hell. This was one of the funnest concerts I’ve ever attended.
I had my doubts, though.
Most of the guys in this garage/blues/soul/rock quartet are in their early 50s. Frontman, Peter Zaremba—with his long, graying bangs, weathered face, blue blazer, and clean white shirt—looked like he was a club owner. At first, we thought he was introducing the band, not in it. Two songs in, we felt sheepish for our inability to recognize the man. While his face bore a slight resemblance to Mick Jagger, his on-stage energy and swagger was far closer to a dandified Iggy Pop. Zaremba, guitarist Keith Streng, drummer Keith Milhizer, and bassist Ken Fox produced some of the vise-grip tightest rock ‘n’ roll I’ve ever heard. Throughout the show these guys had about two hundred butts swinging and swaying, or at least moderately jiggling. The audience was almost all over thirty-five and the twenty-something audience of White Stripes fans and garage rock revivalists could take a lesson from these party rockers drunk on the fountain of youth.
Unlike other musical flames from the ‘70s, which have raged and extinguished, the Fleshtones light has never gone out. What was their secret, we asked ourselves between songs. How had they stayed together so long? (They lost original bass player Jan-Marek Pulkaski in 1986, but replacement Ken Fox has been with them ever since 1990.) And how could they be so relentlessly energetic? They were part of the original CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and Studio 54 scene. Some historians of the New York proto-punk scene like Legs McNeil have commented, however, that the Fleshtones didn’t fit well into the burgeoning punk scene. They played dance party music. Sure, they had a bit of arrogant swagger to them, but they fashioned a more art school look (think David Byrne). And while one could argue that punks were acting out their roles in everyday life, the Fleshtones style was more tongue-in-cheek irony. Ultimately, the band’s secret is this: Fun.
Zaremba is still one of the most playfully energetic lead singers around. In energy, I would rank him up there with recent performers I’ve witnessed like the Legendary Shack Shakers’ J.D. Wilkes and Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz. The rest of the band isn’t too far behind, though. These guys like to climb on things. Zaremba bounded about the stage, mounting the bass drum, while Streng would take his turn with the speaker. Several times they mounted the bar, reminiscent of the great honkers and bar-walker saxophonists of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. At one dramatic point they formed a dance circle in the middle of the club, challenging competitors a la the breakdancers of old. At another juncture, Streng mounted the bar and regaled the audience with pushups, again challenging the audience to outdo him; all the while a friend from the audience and what looked like a band member’s daughter took over the guitar and bass respectively. Milhizer grabbed a drum and also leapt into the crowd, like a child drummer with a pot and spoon.
They eventually danced their way right through the crowd and out the venue’s door. Fortunately they came back to play a roaring encore of “Right Side of a Good Thing”, dancing their way back out again. The crowd chanted “Fleshtones, Fleshtones!” until Zaremba jogged back through the crowd and onto the stage. Unfortunately, the soundman was not as energized as Zaremba and the audience. To the crowd’s chagrin (and Zaremba’s; he appeared unstoppable and untiring) the curtain was dropped.
Rock ‘n’ roll has us believe that the venture is largely a young man’s pursuit, acceptably rebellious for those under thirty, yet these fifty-somethings do it better than 80% of the young bands I have heard or seen. I know this ideology has been changing over the years, but I would argue music is still a very young person’s game as it’s bound up with the sexiness of youth. I guess it doesn’t help that some of the dinosaurs should’ve packed it in fifteen or twenty years ago, not because they’re old, but because they sucked after a certain point and never recaptured their creativity and the vigor of youth. The Fleshtones are different though. They’ve never needed to recapture the creativity and vigor of youth as they seemingly have never lost it.