Thursday, July 21, 2005

An Old Piece: Fleshtones, WTC, July 27, 2001

I wrote this review of the Fleshtones, one of the GREATEST TWO BANDS ON THE FACE OF THE PLANET when I saw them at the top of the World Trade Center.
Please visit their site: they are so worth your while.

World Trade Center - 27 July 2001
By Brendan Skwire

Before I really get to the meat of the matter, which is of course the completely over-the-top Fleshtones show this past weekend in New York City at the World Trade Center's The Greatest Bar on Earth, I think I should give a little background info. This was easily one of the best Fleshtones shows I have ever seen, from the the surreal venue to the surreal audience to the surprise appearance by Gordon Spaeth to the climactic finish.

The Fleshtones were actually the beginning of a really long weekend; the plan was to see the band, stay at a friend's house (I don't live in NYC unfortunately), and head up to Maine for a bluegrass festival the next morning. So when I left my Philadelphia apartment, I was carrying a 50-pound frame pack on my back, wearing a gigantic cowboy hat on my head (atop a noggin so small it makes a ping-pong ball look like a hydrocephalic). The GBOE has a dress code: no shorts, tee-shirts, or sneakers, so I was also carrying some formal wear with me, which I changed into as the E train was pulling into its berth at the bottom of the Towers.

In short, I looked like I'd stepped out of the California Gold Rush of 1849; all I needed was a mule.

I don't know if it's because of the bombing a few years ago, but you have to go through a series of checkpoints before WTC security allows you up to the restaurant: the guards took one look at me, and started ordering me hither and yon to check my bags. At every turn I was met by an eagle-eyed security guard asking me where I was going, what I was doing. Eventually though, my bags were checked, my admission paid, and I made my way onto the elevators. "Next stop, 76th floor," where we transferred elevators to travel the final 30 stories to the top of the world.

The Greatest Bar on Earth is way up on the tippy-top floor of the World Trade Center, affording a beautiful view of the East River, and all the bridges that span into Brooklyn. The room itself was beautiful, and eerie; very swanky rounded bars, cool lighting, lots of tables and couches. A warm golden glow permeated the place. The stage was on the northeast corner of the room; a railing separated the crowd from the dais. At stage right and left, rubenesque go-go girls in fur bikinis stood on pedestals, gyrating wildly under strobe lights, as the DJ pumped out garage rock. I bumped into Fleshtones bass player Ken Fox, who seemed a little bemused by the whole thing; the crowd mix could well have led to some tension.

You have to understand, besides the contingent that was actually there to see the Fleshtones, there was also a large percentage of the bar's regular patrons, the black-clad yuppie crowd, drinking martinis and overpriced beers, oh-so-hip-and-aloof. And then there were the tourist types, a number of who were wearing Hawaiian shirts with cameras dangling from their necks, I don't know where the hell they came from. Under the flashing strobes, every movement looked like it had been taken from one of those early stop-action cartoons from the 30s; I remember thinking "this could get pretty weird," and during the first set that impression was reinforced. The Fleshtones were giving as good as they get, opening up with Hitsburg, Solid Gold Sound, Soundcheck 2001, $10.00 More (which was amazing), all of which got the regular fans up, dancing, and singing along, but seemed to go ZIP! right over the yuppies' NASDAQ-filled heads. I mean for crying out loud, Ken and Keith are spinning around in circles, their arms linked with Ken fretting Keith's guitar while plucking bass and vice versa, while Zaremba's tossing the mic stand back-and forth like a Brooklyn James Brown clad in gold lame', scenes from old go-go videos flashing on a movie screen behind them, and these oblivious squares are just sitting in front of the dance floor like bumps on a pickle, with their backs to the whole thing. I couldn't understand it, so I started watusi-ing as hard as I could at them. It was an ugly thing, I guess, but necessary...

It wasn't as if this was some band of shoe-gazers up there; from the opening chords of "Hitsburg", Zaremba was over the rail and plowing into the audience, followed shortly by Ken and Keith; honestly, I've never seen the band work so hard to get their audience going. Endless tours of the tabletops and bars marked the first set, and slowly the frost began to melt.

I think the ice was finally broken when Keith launched into "Communication Breakdown" near the end of Set 1. The yuppies took the bait: hearing something they knew got more than a few of the 30-somethings out on the floor singing along and dancing, and by then they were snared, because the set ended with one of those endless medleys the 'tones do so well. No matter what you do, you can't back out of one of those; the feet and hips just take over, the head must surrender. For myself, I can't even begin to list what songs they did, because between the singing along and dancing, I was way too occupied to take any notes.

During setbreak, a couple of us snuck out to the payphones where we enjoyed a quick joint. Ordinarily, I wouldn't mention this, but it just added to the overwhelming weirdness permeating the whole event.

"Should we use the bathroom?"

"Nahh, the porter in there will stop us." [And may I digress? I've never seen one of those porter guys in action before, but this guy practically put the soap on my hands and scrubbed for me as I washed up. I could get used to this place...]

"Hey what about the payphones?" They were hidden behind an enormous red velvet curtain, and hell, the time seemed right. I mean, how many people do you know that can say they smoked up on the top of the World Trade Center? Afterwards, I talked to Keith a little bit, and overheard him remark about the tough crowd to Jesse (I hope I got your name right) from Los Dudes, who in turn told me that 15 years ago, when he had first moved to New York, his friend took him to see the Fleshtones, only to have the show sold out; a year later, unbeknownst to him, Zaremba was the engineer on Jesse's first album. Go figure... Peter, for his part, was having a great time. "I really like this place," he said (or something to that effect; I'm paraphrasing here), "You get used to being in dark rock clubs. This is like something out of David Lynch, it's great." (Peter, pardon me if it's not an exact quote, I think I caught the spirit of it pretty well.)

It must have been the booze, because by set 2 the yuppies had joined the rest of us on the floor, and the fun really kicked into gear. Nothing like watching the writhing of a Prada-bag carrying mid-manager...

Set 2 opened with "My New Song" and "Soul City," a tune I'm not familiar with. But then, good gravy, they pulled out a back-to-the-wall "That's Your Problem," right into "My Love Machine," right into "I'm Not a Sissy Anymore," and there was no turning back. The crowd was out of control, men and women wiggling and squiggling all over the place, with no regard for spilled drinks or bourgeois propriety. I walked over to the bar to refill my pint, and stood next to a young woman who could not take her eyes off the stage, like a deer caught in the headlights. I saw a May-December couple do the swim out on the floor. Things were getting to critical mass, and quickly.

And how could the crowd NOT have eventually gone nuts for this band? As I've written before, the genius of the Fleshtones is their combination of sincerity, with a good bit of tongue in cheek, and that throbbing, stomping, irristable beat. It's like R&B taken to an almost absurd degree, and not even Jerry Falwell, moral crusader against fun, could have resisted shaking his ass if he was there. But I digress...

Ken did a great song I've never heard before, and hope to hear again, "Dreamin' Bout Work." Have I mentioned "Let's Go" yet? I don't think I've heard them do that song since early 1999 at TT's in Cambridge, and it just about exploded my head.

And then. Then! THEN! Gordon Spaeth of all people shows up on stage, and starts blowing harp on "Goddamn It" and "Whatever It Takes". The whole band was beaming from ear to ear, especially Bill, and another foray into the crowd went down, with Ken and Keith clambering over cocktail tables and shaky barstools to dance on the bar. I talked to Gordon later on, having never met him before, never mind seen him play live. Gordon admitted he'd never heard either of the songs he was tooting the Hohner on, and was wondering "Did I sound OK up there?" Yeah, he did.. it was perfect.

By this point, the night was getting on, and the boys let us go with 2 of the best performances I've seen yet of "How I Feel" and "It's Alright", which culminated in Keith and Ken marching through the crowd, returning to the foot of the stage, getting down on their hands and knees, and finally ROLLING AROUND ON THE FLOOR DOING LEG LIFTS, while breaking the song all the way down to the lowest of volumes, just a skeleton really, and then bringing it all the way back up to just about the loudest thing I have ever heard. If you haven't seen Ken Fox break into an impromptu bass solo while prone, you have not seen ANYTHING my friends. I have to admit, I'm still hoarse.

Perhaps one of the best things about the show was the aftermath; instead of escaping to the relative quiet of "the band room," the guys just hung out, mingling at the bar, shooting the shit with whoever was hanging around. Ken and Bill were at the bar enjoying some cold ones, while Peter was still on stage with the go-go girls grinning away and shimmying unapologetically. It was then, more than ever before I think, that I realized how truly great, how important, and how vital and visceral the Fleshtones really are. Here was a band who, when faced with a pretty stiff crowd, had them in the palms of their hands within 45 minutes, and then never let them go. In an age of contrived boy-bands, teenage pop-stars, pretend punk-rockers who hide in the bus after their arena shows, and self-indulgent singer-songwriter types, the Fleshtones are the most honest thing out there, and by "thing" I mean as a band, scene, and as people. It's good to know that someone's giving their life for rock-n-roll, because rock-n-roll desperately needs it.

Set 1: Hitsburg USA; Solid Gold Sound; Soundcheck 2001; Jack In The Box; $10 More; Dreg; The Vindicators; I Want More; Love's In The Grave; Tearing Me Apart; Communication Breakdown; Super Rock Medley.

Set 2: My New Song; Soul City; That's Your Problem; My Love Machine; I'm Not A Sissy Anymore; Dreamin' Bout Work; Let's Go!; Friends Of Bazooka Joe; Goddamn It (w/ Gordon Spaeth on harp); Whatever It Takes (w/ Gordon Spaeth on harp); How I Feel; It's Alright.
© 2001 Brendan Skwire


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