There's so much to love in the perpetual teenage gusto of garage rock. Whether its purveyors are suited up in cheap costumes, tossing off pseudo-snottiness, or springing into crowds as though stages are made of trampolines, there's a blazing, brazen aesthetic to the genre that always kicks my mood into high gear.
While mainstream champions like the White Stripes and the Hives have shucked guttural garage-rock spontaneity for pop sheen, this year's biggies still carry an unrefined sass in their sound. The Black Lips just released the occasionally hilarious ruckus Good Bad Not Evil on the label wing of the Vice empire, and another favorite of mine, Jay Reatard, is the rumored target of a label bidding war. (His 2006 release, Blood Visions, is a hypertense, spastic assortment of demented pop and stalker talk.) But no matter who jams a toe into the big industry, the garage rock community will forever have its sneakers rooted in reality — or, to be more specific, in the dive-bar shows that unite the diehard fans at festivals across the country.
For the past six years running, Budget Rock has staked a claim as the West Coast's biggest garage-punk blowout. The annual marathon of all things lo-fi, lowbrow, and loads of fun builds on the region's history of playfully adolescent and unabashedly immature entertainment. The Bay Area is known for its raw punk bands, especially those tied to the legendary Purple Onion, the North Beach club that hosted plenty of loose cannons in the early '90s, from the Makers and Guitar Wolf to local surf-garage acts the Trashwomen and Phantom Surfers. "People are moving here because they recognize that it's exciting," says Budget Rock's Chris Owen of the local music community. "They travel here from out of town because of the Bay Area brand of trashy, DIY garage rock that was established with the whole Purple Onion scene." He adds with a laugh that he works on Budget Rock with partner John Pool in order to "put something on that celebrates the local superiority, as I like to say."
Like many of the bands it hosts, Budget Rock made the move from San Francisco to the East Bay over the years. This weekend's (Oct. 25-28) blowout commandeers Oakland's Stork Club for the second time in a row. The event invites oldies, newbies, and goodies from around the world to perform, and throws in a wild card (this year the hot-dog-eating contest will be replaced by a costume contest Saturday night, in keeping with the spirit of both Halloween and such creatively frocked San Francisco acts as the Mummies and the Rip Offs). The aforementioned Trashwomen are playing for the first time in a decade, and Boston power-poppers the Real Kids are reuniting after nearly as long away from the stage. Owens says his general curator formula is based on booking a headlining East Coast act, a legend from the Purple Onion days, a couple bands from Seattle's Boom Boom Records, and his favorite local groups.
This year's Budget Rock roster is especially strong. On Thursday, San Francisco's Les Hormones dish out a heavy dose of swamp-rock. Friday, two of my personal picks are also homegrown: Rock 'n' Roll Adventure Kids wail over boozy, bluesy freakouts, while the Traditional Fools give fans of the Black Lips' psychedelic stomp plenty of reasons to bounce along. For the Reatard/Wipers fans, Saturday's showcase features Austin's incredible Hex Dispensers, one of my favorite new discoveries for their aggressively dark, hook-riddled rawk. They share a bill with Detroit's Tyvek, whose wiry postpunk racket was a high point of the Mission Creek Music Festival. Sunday, the ridiculous Knights of the New Crusade attempt to save your soul from self-seriousness with a combination of ye olde armor and goofy humor.
Owens is a garage-rock loyalist, splitting his free time between playing music (formerly in Killer's Kiss, now in Epic Sessions — more of a '70s rock band, he notes), pulling together Budget Rock, and running Hook or Crook Records (which released records by the Lamps, Better Beatles, and Hank IV), among other jobs. "This is a total do-it-yourself movement; it's not important for anyone who's involved in this to make it," he says. "It's much more exciting to play music in front of people who really care about it than to play music hoping something better comes out of it later. Living in the moment is more rewarding than being popular."
That said, Budget Rock is a popular event, selling to capacity every year. So while tickets are available at the door, it's best not to lag in making Stork Club arrangements. And don't forget to bring something — a costume, an attitude, or an appetite for cheap booze — that adds to an atmosphere that's utterly, and awesomely, ridiculous.
Speaking of the Rock 'n' Roll Adventure Kids, congrats to 2007's winners of the S.F. Weekly Music Awards, which includes those Kids, along with The Federation, Eats Tapes, Bayonics, Monophonics, The Dodos, Terrence Brewer, Lemonade, Or, the Whale, and Surya Dub. Thanks to all the artists, the voters, and everyone who contributed to this year's ceremony at Ruby Skye.