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!