Use Your Illusion
JON SPENCER BANGS his Robert Johnson against the microphone stand. He cocks his assiduously groomed bedhead and places a big black boot on a stage monitor. Sweat beads. Chest hairs coil. He preens. Leers. Lunges. And--as if possessed--the blues bustin' meta-muthafucka explodes: "Uh-HUH!" he bellows in a voice that finds a sweet spot between the prowling menace of Sonny Boy Williamson and the frat-bash abandon of a butt-drunk Brett Favre. Drums and bass throw down behind him like a Rocket 88. "I wanna tell ya all that the bloooze! The Ba-loooooooze is numba one!" The kids in the crowd go bonkers. A sea of backward baseball hats bob above the choppy surface. The meta-mutha has 'em in his sweaty palm. He turns to his guitar-guy Judah Bauer and his clunky drummer Russell Simins who manhandle their instruments like Creatine junkies. The mosh pit becomes a disco.
It makes sense that the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion will be playing First Avenue, an alt-rock institution that feels more and more like an amalgam of Max's Kansas City and Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que. In an era where style-pirating culture junkies are tweaking every rock (and/or rock-related) cliché, the Blues Illusion have rather ingeniously made a career out of rank regression. You'd have to be pretty dumb to think their moron 'tude isn't just as contrived as Tortoise's collage art or Courtney's bustline, just as you'd have to be damn naive to think the Brown University semiotics major in Spencer doesn't enjoy playing the role of white devil. Loosening clinched indie booties like an all-bran muffin, the JSBX is the smartest dumb band of the '90s.
And they have no interest in fooling with formula. What's most interesting about this year's Acme (Matador)--on which the band's original tracks were touched up by some of the most sought-after remixers in Indieland--is how much it sounds exactly like the rest of their catalog. Any band that works with Alec Empire, pals around with Cibo Matto, and considers blather like "I don't play no blues/I play rock 'n' roll!" a decent reproach to its musically correct critics, isn't putting all its cards on the table.
See, the Blues Exploitation doesn't explore the Delta "punk blues" epitomized by the so-called legend R.L. Burnside, or the jump-blues shouters Spencer's bellow often seems to allude to. What they're playing with is the history of honky blues dilettantism, from the Yardbirds to Jonny Lang. The more absurd their routine gets, the more obvious the gag becomes. When the Jon Spencer Blues Dilution really stinks it resembles "Train Kept A-Rollin'" as hijacked by Spencer's late-'80s shitabilly band, Pussy Galore. When it's great (as on 1992's scum-funk workout "Afro" or 1994's uncharacteristically loopy Orange), Spencer's art-rocker-as-sharecropper shtick jibes with his feigned ignorance of history to make carnival out of 30 years worth of bad vibes between alienated hipster honkies and "authentic" "black" "rock 'n' rollers."
Every '60s punk band, from the Troggs to VU to the Modern Lovers, drew from this neurosis in some sense, usually by debasing the faux-machismo in the posturing of stars like Eric Clapton. Somewhere amid the theremin runs, Beck cameo, and retrograde rave-ups on Orange, Spencer shouts, "'Sister Ray' was my father," referring to the Velvets' 17-minute ode to S&M. As Uncle Thomas Jefferson would have it, the American family was made in miscegenation. With Iggy Pop as a mother figure and those original East Village hedonists the Fugs as crazy aunts, Spencer has every right to feast on the flesh of grandpappy Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays an early show Sunday at First Avenue.
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