Weird Live Review: Sparks

Sparks at the Ace Hotel

It’s not every day you get to hear music by any band on our Weird List rendered by a 38-piece orchestra. It’s even more remarkable when that band is Sparks, the quirk-pop duo of Ron and Russell Mael, and even more remarkable when the focus of the event isn’t one of their more symphonic efforts like Lil’ Beethoven but their 1974 glam-rock opus Kimono My House, which featured nary a string section but plenty of fuzzy guitar solos and Russell Mael’s swooping falsetto vocals at their most mock-operatic.

The Mael brothers first gave Kimono My House the orchestral treatment last December in London, and decided to follow up those shows with a similar two-night run in their hometown of Los Angeles. The setting for both performances was the suitably stately Theatre at Ace Hotel, formerly the United Artists movie palace, a spectacularly ornate room with Gothic decorations nearly as elaborate as the music from Kimono My House.

As I usually do these days, I wrote the full review of the show for my day job over at L.A. Weekly. So you can read my full account on their site. Suffice it to say that while the orchestral reimagining of Kimono My House, most of the highlights (for me, anyway) came in the show’s second half, when they played an assortment of songs spanning Sparks’ amazing four-decade catalog. And at least one of those highlights involved a monkey. (And no, I’m not referring to Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. Although he did insert himself into the proceedings. I’m still not sure how I feel about that Sparks/Franz collab.)


Weird Live Review: Cattle Decapitation

Cattle Decapitation
Photo by Vince Edwards/Metal Blade Records

Well, I finally experienced my first Cattle Decapitation show and I must say, they exceeded my expectations. They’re a bit less weird than I was led to believe — the whole extreme vegetarian thing isn’t such a big part of their shtick anymore, as half the band members now eat meat — but they’re a super-intense live act. Especially frontman Travis Ryan, who has a death growl that can peel the paint off the back wall. Listening to him roar, shriek and gibber over Cattle Decap’s deathgrind onslaught is like hearing Mike Patton do vocals for Cannibal Corpse.

My full review is over on LA Weekly, so check it out. And fear not: We’ll have an update on their forthcoming album right here on this here blog as soon as details emerge. (I learned from a label publicist that they begin recording later this month in Denver, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. Well, that and the fact that the new songs they played during last night’s set sounded, at least to my untrained ears, exactly like what you’d expect from Cattle Decapitation.)

Weird Live Review: Bob Log III

Bob Log III

Well, we finally got to witness firsthand the human blues-bomb cannonball that is Bob Log III, and the one-man party band did not disappoint. You can read my full review of the evening’s mayhem on LA Weekly (yeah, I got paid to write about this one—I’m a fucking sellout, I know) or you can just look at these blurry Instagram photos, which actually sum up the show as well or better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, I’m pretty sure Bob Log III is the baddest motherfucker ever to simultaneously play a banjo with his hands and drums with his feet.

By the way, a special shout-out to our new friends Rico and Gidget, who were there for their second Bob Log III all the way from Duarte, which, for those of you who don’t know L.A. geography, is fucking far. That’s Rico raging at the edge of the stage in the above photo. I tried to get a decent picture of his girlfriend Gidget bouncing on Bob Log’s knee, but she was such a blur of tossed green hair and extended middle fingers that my poor little camera was not up to the task.

Also, best Bob Log III quote of the night that didn’t make it into my LA Weekly review: “Oh, my god. You lucky, lucky people. How did you make it here tonight? Hey, is this someone’s bra?”

See you next time, Bob!

Bob Log III and his "disco banjo"
Bob Log III and his “disco banjo”
Ain't no party like a Bob Log party
Ain’t no party like a Bob Log party

Weird Band Night happened, and it was awesome

California Institute of Abnormalarts
Photo by Gruesome Gereg

Well, it only took us five years, but we finally hosted our first-ever Weird Band Night, and it was amazing. Why didn’t we do this sooner? Because we’re control freaks and booking live music is the art of wrangling chaos. So many things are so completely out of your control that all you can really do is line up the bands and the venue and tell everyone you’ve ever met that they need to be there and then sit back and hope for the best.

But despite a setback or two (we forgive you, Haunted Garage), Weird Band Night was a rousing success. OK, the venue could have been a little fuller, and the show could have run a little more on schedule. And Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra’s name could’ve been spelled correctly on the marquee. But no one died and the bands were on fire. Plus the California Institute of Abnormalarts (CIA) might literally be the Weirdest Venue in the World (complete with its own oddities museum containing no fewer than two actual mummies) so we couldn’t have asked for a better place to host it for us. We’re putting this one in the win column!

First up we had the Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra from San Diego, playing their first L.A. show. As with all opening bands, they had to contend with the lower energy of a small audience, but they powered through a hilarious set that answered such burning questions as “What’s the most expensive way to feed a zebra?” (answer: Pop Tarts) and “Which species of bird are potentially poisonous?” (answer: all of them).


Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra
SPO-20, robot frontman of the Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra

For a one-man/one-robot act, SPO had quite the impressive setup, complete with their own lighting and an audiovisual presentation that included vintage educational videos and lyric subtitles, so you could decipher the Stephen Hawking-like vocals of the band’s frontrobot, SPO-20.

SPO at the CIA
Photo by Gruesome Gereg

Next up: The Rhythm Coffin, the ghoulish cavalry who swooped in and saved the day when Haunted Garage were forced to cancel on short notice. Their set was a big horror-punk/surf/rockabilly singalong with lots of great audience interaction, especially when they tossed what felt like about 300 styrofoam dummy heads into the crowd. This was ostensibly only for one song, “The Headless Head Bop,” but once the heads were unleashed, you pretty much had to keep your own head on a swivel for the rest of their set, lest you get beaned from behind by an overeager Coffin fan.

The Rhythm Coffin
Rhythm Coffin lead ghoul Gruesome Gereg (Photo by Paul Koudounaris)
Eerie Emma
Rhythm Coffin “Ghoulie Girl” Eerie Emma (Photo by Paul Koudounaris)
The Rhythm Coffin
Scary Carrie, Gruesome Gereg and GhoulHectic Clownie (Photo by Paul Koudounaris)

Last but certainly not least: The Radioactive Chicken Heads. What can I say about these guys? Every single song was a show unto itself. They broke out so many props and costumes and extra performers that, had I not met lead singer Carrot Topp in street clothes before the show, I might have started wondering if Dave Brockie faked his death and was now playing in a chicken-themed punk band from Orange Country. Their show was GWAR-like in its mind-boggling parade of wacky characters and costumes.

Carrot Top, Radioactive Chicken Heads
Carrot Topp of Radioactive Chicken Heads (Photo by Paul Koudounaris)
Radioactive Chicken Heads
Chicken Heads (left to right): El Pollo Diablo, Sgt. Psyclopps, Carrot Topp, Cheri Tomato, Bird Brain
I'm not really sure what this thing was. It almost ate Carrot Topp, but he managed to escape.
I’m not really sure what this thing was. It almost ate Carrot Topp, but he managed to escape.
Radioactive Chicken Heads
Double Carrot Topps! For the song “I Looked Into the Mirror.”
Radioactive Chicken Heads
Carrot Topp, Bird Brain and drummer Puke Boy
Carrot Topp and Badd Bunny
Carrot Topp does battle with the Badd Bunny, one of many adversaries who, for some reason, manage to get into every Radioactive Chicken Heads show
Radioactive Chicken Heads
This adorable little girl got onstage to help introduce the song “I Eat Kids.” Don’t worry, she’s fine. (Photo by Paul Koudounaris)
Punky Rooster and El Pollo Diablo (Photo by Paul Koudounaris)
Punky Rooster and El Pollo Diablo (Photo by Paul Koudounaris)

Thanks again to all the bands, Carl and everyone at the CIA, and most of all, all the friends and fans who came out to support the show. I hope you had half as much fun as we did.

Weird Live Review: Hardcore DEVO

Devo at the Wiltern

These day’s, it’s pretty common for veteran bands to dedicate entire shows to a single album. Everyone from the Pixies to Cheap Trick to Kraftwerk have jumped on that particular nostalgia bandwagon. What’s rarer is for bands to focus an entire tour around their earliest, most obscure material. But that’s exactly what DEVO have chosen to do for their Hardcore DEVO Live tour, which is based entirely on songs they wrote and/or recorded before the release of their first album, 1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! And judging from the audience response at the Wiltern Theatre here in Los Angeles last night, it was a smart decision. Turns out plenty of DEVO fans are super-excited to hear the band playing material that they mostly haven’t performed live in over 30 years.

There was no opening act, so the band took the stage promptly at 8:30 p.m.: Original DEVO-ers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, plus drummer Josh Freese, who’s been with the band more or less continuously since 1996. The stage set was cleverly made up to look vaguely like the Ohio basement in which the band started, with backdrops painted to look like cinderblocks, topped by translucent panels doubling as dirty windows. Mark sat at his keyboard reading a newspaper. “Nixon says he’s resigning,” he announced, his voice distorted to sound robotic and cartoonish. “I think 1974 is gonna be a good year.” Then he proceeded to hurl packs of cigarettes into the audience. “Got any Chesterfields?” Jerry asked. “I already gave away the one pack,” Mark quipped.


With the scene set and the hijinks out of the way, the band launched into “Mechanical Man,” the first track from the highly sought-after Hardcore Devo compilation that collected all their early demos onto CD for the first time back in 1990. From there the band proceeded to tear many of Hardcore Devo‘s best-known tracks: “Auto Modown/Space Girls Blues,” “I Been Refused,” “Bamboo Bimbo,” plus a few true obscurities like the bluesy “Beehive,” which someone at the Denver stop of this tour was smart enough to capture on film:

Serious DEVO fans probably also known this song from Jerry Casale’s Jihad Jerry side project, which revived the track in 2006. Throughout the Hardcore show, it was fun to see Jerry taking lead vocals duties as often as Mark—a reminder that, in the band’s early days, they didn’t have a true frontman. Bob 1 got a few turns on the mic, too, including “Baby Talkin’ Bitches,” one of several guitar-heavy early DEVO tracks that reveal the band’s roots in Midwestern proto-punk:

About midway through their set, the band got up from their stools and changed costumes, putting on the blue “workmen’s” suits and blue hardhats that served as their earliest band uniforms. From there, they launched into some better-known early tracks that definitely got the crowd more revved up (up until that point, apart from the one guy dancing like a lunatic directly in front of me, it was clear that most in attendance weren’t very familiar with the material).

This was the part of the show that included their brilliantly off-kilter cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” as well as several tracks from the 1974-77 era that eventually found their way onto Are We Not Men? and Duty Now for the Future: “Timing X,” “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Jocko Homo,” “Gut Feeling.” The crowd also knew many of the words to “Be Stiff,” a longtime live favorite, and “Fountain of Filth,” a punk rave-up with a shout-along chorus that could almost pass for a Ramones song. (In the video below, you can see Jerry wearing the creepy, transparent doll masks they donned earlier for “Jocko Homo,” another nod to the theatrics of their early days.)

They only played a two-song encore, but it was a pretty great two songs. First, Mark Mothersbaugh came out dressed as Booji Boy, one of the band’s early representations of devolution. This time around, he was dressed up sort of like a Teletubbie, in a pink hooded jumpsuit with cartoon eyes drawn over the hood. He also came onstage pushing a walker, perhaps an ironic nod to the fact that DEVO first introduced the character nearly 40 years ago.

After Mark’s solo performance of “Booji Boy’s Funeral” and “U Got Me Bugged”—definitely two of the weirdest songs in the entire DEVO catalog—the entire band came back out to wrap up the show with a rousing rendition of “Clockout,” featuring Bob Casale’s son Alex on bass. (A song they hadn’t played live since 1977, according to Jerry.) It was one of several nods to Bob 2 (and to late drummer Alan Myers) sprinkled throughout the evening, all of which felt fitting but never heavy-handed.

Overall, the band did a remarkably good job of keeping the show from lapsing into one big nostalgia-fest. The sheer rawness of the early DEVO songs probably helped in that regard, but so did the high-energy performances of the band. Even if they need to sit on stools these days to make it through a 90-minute set, the surviving Casale and the brothers Mothersbaugh can still rock out pretty convincingly for a bunch of guys well into their sixties. In my blurry Instagram photos, you’d swear they haven’t aged a day.


Since there was no opening act, the show ended on the early side, around 10:00 p.m. I heard a few protests from the crowd—a few people had probably hoped they would play some more “hits” in the encore—but as far as I’m concerned, the Hardcore DEVO show delivered exactly as promised. For the truly hardcore DEVO fans in attendance, especially that one dancing lunatic right in front of me (“How can you not to dance to this?” he shouted to no one in particular during “Ono”), it might have been their last chance to hear their heroes resurrect those songs they created back when they were a bunch of restless art students in an Akron basement.

Weird Live Review: tUnE-yArDs


It’ll probably never happen. but I really hope that someday, Leslie & The LYs open for tUnE-yArDs. Even though their music is very different, their stage shows share the same sense of childlike wonder and DIY inventiveness. And they both have great backup dancers. And look good in gold lamé.

It’s not just the music that’s different, of course. Where Leslie Hall is all tongue-in-cheek irreverence, Merrill Garbus is an earnest performer who inspires a kind of rapt attention in her fans that I haven’t seen at a show in months. There were hardly any outstretched cell phones (which is why I didn’t take many pictures—I didn’t want to be the only asshole with a camera) and often, when she was building a loop with her percussion and vocals, you could hear a pin drop in the packed Fonda Theatre in Hollywood. “You guys are so quiet,” she noted at one point. “It’s so awesome to play for such a respectful audience.”

She focused her set on material from Nikki Nack, the latest tUnE-yArDs album, which is growing on me even though I still think it’s not as good as 2011’s brilliant w h o k i l l. Nikki Nack is both noisier and sparser than its predecessor, made up almost entirely of layered vocals and percussion and Nate Brenner’s fluid basslines. Live, many of the tracks seemed clearly designed to get the crowd moving, and most of them did. But nothing in the show got a bigger cheer than Garbus’ ukulele, which she broke out for two w h o k i l l tracks (it never appears on Nikki Nack): “Bizness” and an absolutely show-stopping version of “Powa,” tUnE-yArDs’ version of a lighters-up power ballad (except this crowd was, of course, far too respectful to hold up lighters, real or virtual).

Still, I came away from this show with new-found appreciation for several Nikki Nack songs, particularly “Wait for a Minute,” which showcases Garbus’ underutilized gift for melody, and “Time of Dark,” whose soaring, Afrobeat-tinged chorus has a Peter Gabriel-like sense of grandeur and mystery. She also did a great encore version of “Rocking Chair,” bringing out Amelia Meath from opening act Sylvan Esso to provide haunting harmonies while Garbus and her backup singers stomped and shouted like a chain gang in an Alan Lomax field recording.


My other favorite part of the show was on a more personal note: It turns out Garbus’ boyfriend father Bill has the same birthday as me. She had the crowd sing “Happy Birthday” to him so she could record the whole thing on her phone and send him the video the next day. Us June 6th babies sure do get around!

Weird Live Review: Kirin J Callinan

Kirin J Callinan live

The universe really did not want me to see Kirin J Callinan at the Echoplex last night. First, I wasn’t on the guest list as promised by his label. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m about to be unemployed so I’m trying to avoid frivolous expenditures like weird band concerts. I was about to spring for the $20 when a woman who had arrived just behind me said, “Want to be my plus-one?” So maybe the universe was on my side last night after all.

But then, just as Callinan was about to go on, I got sucked into a bizarre debate about the biological and ethical imperatives of veganism with my new friend at the bar, which in the Echoplex is at the very back of the venue, approximately one million feet from the stage. “Humans didn’t evolve to be carnivores,” my guest list savior was explaining to me and two other women she had just met at the bar. “We don’t have carnivore teeth. Our stomach acids can’t break down animal protein. I’m going to send you a YouTube video of a lecture on this. It’s all been proven scientifically.” Meanwhile, Callinan was setting up his guitar pedals, dressed in a white silk kimono, as though he had just wandered in from a spa. Even under the kimono, he looked paradoxically both gaunt and muscular. I wondered if he was vegan.

I escaped the veganism debate just in time to score a spot right up against the stage right drum riser, where the thunder of the drummer’s kick drum made my non-carnivore teeth rattle. It was so loud next to the drums that I couldn’t even tell you what the first song was, but it was rivetingly intense and aggressive. Live, Callinan has the tightly coiled stage presence (and impressively large, imperious schnoz) of a young Pete Townshend. I feared for the safety of a heckler who kept yelling, “Take it off!” “You want it?” Callinan shot back, fingering the collar of his kimono. It was unclear whether the “it” was the kimono or Callinan’s nakedness. “You can start by buying me a drink, don’t you think? I’m serious.” (The heckler did not buy him a drink.)



Callinan’s three-piece backing band—drums, bass, keyboards—had clearly been instructed to remain entirely expressionless. The drummer, a sinewy German whose name was either Hunter or Gunter, had an impressive knack for staring out into the audience and not moving his head at all, even when the rest of him was wailing away on a particularly frenzied passage. Even when Callinan introduced the band—the keyboard player, it turned out, was his younger brother—not one of them cracked so much as a smirk.

The brute force of “Come On USA” certainly knocked the audience back on its heels a bit—”Very Marilyn Manson!” one person exclaimed—but for me, it was the gentler songs that best showcased Callinan’s talents, both as a crafter of melody and as an emotive, room-silencing performer. “Victoria M.” is every bit the New Wave anthem live that it is on record, and “Landslide” is a broken-hearted hymn worthy of Leonard Cohen. When Callinan starts to howl, “The stars are all dirt, and God is in the water, and Hell is right here on Earth,” you catch a glimpse of what a superstar this guy might become.



Did he eventually take off that kimono, and also his shirt? Of course he did. Every Kirin J Callinan performance, as near as I can tell, has a bit of a striptease quality to it. Before he even played a note, he began the show by taking off a pair of white gloves.


Callinan ended the show, as I’d hoped he would, with “The Toddler,” his hilarious a cappella number sung from the point of view of a swaggering two-year-old who brags, “All the pre-school cougars wanna get with me, they’re nearly twice my age!” The crowd helped him keep the beat by clapping along, but we couldn’t quite figure out how to help him sing the chorus, though he kept asking us to. Kirin J Callinan isn’t really the type of performer one sings along with.


I have to end this review by thanking my new concert buddy, Karrie from Minneapolis. We may never agree on veganism, Karrie, but next time you’re in L.A., I owe you a plus-one!