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Wednesday, Aug 13 1997
The Specials, Undercover S.K.A.
Thursday, July 31

Have you ever dreamed about going back in time to one of the creatively crucial moments in modern music history? Maybe to the groundbreaking recording session that produced Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, or Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, or the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Or to a cataclysmic live performance -- like "Wood Stock," the concert organized around the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle, or Prince's "Sign o' the Times" tour?

Seems improbable doesn't it? But it happens. Why, just last week, a crowd jammed the Fillmore to see a Specials show, and halfway through the gig, that crowd found itself back in 1981. I went right along with them. Of all the years a guy could go back to. If a ska show at the Fillmore can transport me to the Reagan era, an after-hours jam session at Pearl's ought to swing hard enough to shuttle me back to New York circa 1937 to catch Charlie Parker and Miles Davis cutting a set at the Royal Roost.

Unfortunately, you can't order a wrinkle in time the way you might order an extra-large pizza with everything but anchovies. The circumstances surrounding so strange an event matter a great deal. Case in point: the Specials show. Maybe the blame should be placed on the cross-generational audience that packed the Fillmore to see and hear the remnants of the U.K. import that helped reclaim, revive, and retool the Jamaican ska scene of the '50s and '60s during the '80s. (The original lineup, which went under several names and featured Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall, dissolved in 1986.) Dressed in requisite derby hats, skinny ties, and pegged-leg suits, these fans were poised to twist, moss, and jump till dawn.

Or maybe an accusing finger should be pointed at the opening act, Undercover S.K.A., who gushed about how honored they were to be warming up the crowd for the Specials. By the time the local band caught their stride, the crowd was attentive. Fifteen minutes later, when they released the crazed musicianship of newly added percussionist Stark Raving Brad, it was skank or be spanked. You see, Brad is the kind of performer you do not dare bring onstage until the end of a set, for fear that he will steal your thunder and then ask you not to blame him for his goony charisma.

But lest we forget who the evening belonged to, the Specials must also be implicated in the night's time travel. Though the band's current personnel only partially reflect the original group, they did their best to invoke the style and sound that made the Specials so popular over a decade ago, when ska bands roamed the top of the international pop charts like dinosaurs. In theory, the show, and the tour it is a part of, is supposed to promote the band's latest recording. But watching veteran members Neville "Judge Rough Neck" Staples, Roddy "Radiation" Byers, Lynval Golding, and Horace "Gentleman" Panter dizzily churn out 17-year-old rude boy anthems -- like "Guns of Navarone," "Ghost Town," "Rat Race," and "Concrete Jungle" -- gave the whole event the distasteful feel of a musical revue. Who needs the present when you are living in the past?

Now, unlike most attendees, I had not seriously listened to ska for close to seven years. It was the college years that did it to me. Sooner or later, all of the intense, late-night discussions with fellow music-nerds recovering from the post-traumatic stress of high school symphonic band make you realize that life is short, ears are precious, and jamming to a high-energy dance music like ska shouldn't be attempted more than a couple of times a year. Especially when the music in question stopped evolving around 1984. Still, the crowd ate up the argument that the Specials (aka Special A.K.A., aka Special A.K.A. the Automatics, aka the Cauvington Automatics) pushed for 90 minutes, and through three encores: Why bother with growth and innovation when the strains of yesterday can be made to sound so gosh-darn fresh today?

-- Victor Haseman

Brown Album

Some people think shit jokes, and toilet humor in general, are the cheapest sort of laugh, appealing only to our ever-alert inner chimpanzee, and not to our dormant and vestigial Eustace Tilley. But toilet humor can be rather clever, even elegant. In the movie Naked Gun, there's a scene where Leslie Nielsen unknowingly steps into a restroom during a press conference with a live radio mike pinned to his lapel. And, you betcha, the sound of his urine stream cascading into the bowl, and through the public address system as the actors struggle for just the right combination of horror and embarrassment in their facial expressions, is hilarious. But even better was the piss joke's setup. The way that seemingly superfluous visual info (Nielsen drinking a big glass of water in the background while someone else speaks at the podium), innocuous developments (the podium mike faltering as Nielsen steps up; the subsequent offering of the radio mike), and suspicion of the impending gag (Nielsen sneaking off to the men's room, glancing back at the podium with some desperation) all made the joke work. The sheer architecture of it was admirable, almost virtuosic.

The local prog trio Primus, while not limited to mere toilet humor (as the title of their latest, Brown Album, might tend to suggest), are certainly fond of a good gag. And as silly as the musical or lyrical joke might be ("Sailing the Seas of Cheese," "Pudding Time," "Pork Soda"), the way they have gone about it has always been deft -- a virtuosity seated not in the throne of shredderdom (with its nonstick cooking surface), but buried deep in the back of the klown kar. And it was the technical end that originally drew the attention of the musician mags. Yep, Les Claypool has that sort of uniquely applied bass talent that has made some writers declare the instrument as "an extension of his body" (though he admits that he likes playing the drums better) -- even when they couldn't take his nasal vocals; his erudite lyrical forays into fishing, the DMV, and genitals; and the lightness of it all. At times, Claypool seemed to invent a whole new bass-playing technique with a single riff (like the syncopated G-string strum coupled with simultaneous hammer-ons on "American Life," off Sailing the Seas of Cheese). It's a playing style that's impressive from a point of showmanship, with none of showmanship's usual embarrassments -- a style whose substance is, yes, style.

Album after album, stirring emotion has never been Primus' goal. A friend once remarked how surprised he was that one song off Tales From the Punch Bowl actually came close to moving him. As handy as the novelty of a virtuoso band playing cartoon music might have proved initially, the lack of heart has apparently started wearing down on Primus' critical acceptance. Recent reviews peg Brown Album as brown. And though not much has changed with Primus, except their drummer, it seems the same group of people who found Primus' high jinks fun years ago are just plain tired of the joke. And as much as I can still admire the components going into a Primus tune, I can't blame them. Not so much because I like to put on a record and sip chamomile tea while I jot down all the day's feelings in my emo-log, but because it seems that Primus' musical japes are running short.

There are fine conceits on Brown Album. New drummer Brain's headstrong tom-tom emphasis -- sometimes, as on "Restin' Bones," eerily similar to John Bonham's -- might not be as intricate as the inflected rhythm of the departed Tim Alexander, but it is by no means bad. It is especially well-placed on those tunes that use the same sort of pentatonic mongering favored by Led Zeppelin, like "Shake Hands With Beef." And the double-time escalation on "Bob's Party Time Lounge" is especially funky, as adverse as Claypool is to having his music labeled as such. But then, there's the great sameness to it, seeping out here and there like effluent from a milquetoast landfill. To listen to "Fisticuffs" and "The Chastising of Renegade" is to realize just how many Primus tunes are based around the same sort of tonality -- a rough Phrygian, the same sort used by a dearth of second-tier speed-metal bands. And the great indifference felt at titles like "The Return of Sathington Willoughby" and "Puddin' Taine," both of which nod heavily to previous Primus tunes, suggests that Claypool's recurrent cast of freaky characters might also have stayed too long. It's like we're becoming more and more privy to the details of Primus' running joke, even though the punch line is always more or less the same, and has gone wholly threadbare. Give me a good shit joke any day. There comes a point when we tire of marveling over a thing's construction, and just want a cheap laugh.

-- Michael Batty


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