Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Powerstation (Concert Review)


If we’re being charitable, we’ll write off the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s show at Auckland’s Powerstation to the fact that the show had been postponed from last Friday night due to an illness in the band. The rescheduling, we’ll allow, can account for the rather disappointing turnout at Wednesday’s show; the illness could explain the rather unimpressive gig.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are a hard band to pin down. Much of the show was spent trying to recognise who they were trying to be next; it felt, at moments, like I was at a wine tasting — “Yes, I’m getting…what’s that…Jimmy Page, I believe, with just a naughty hint of Lemmy in the background.” The biggest problem — and there were several — with last night’s show was that Jon Spencer and his Blues Explosion don’t quite seem to know for themselves who they want to be, and as a result, the band’s music is, while undeniably tightly performed, rather inconsistent in its quality.

When they remember that they are, ostensibly, a blues band, explosions notwithstanding, JSBE put on a sharp, engaging show. Judah Bauer, when he’s given the chance to shuffle and boogie, pulls out riffs and rhythms that wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a Stax backing track, and drummer Russell Simins, who looked like he was sitting at a drum kit that was about three and a half sizes too small for him, can play with power and energy. As long as they’re grooving, Jon and his Explosion play an entirely decent blues.

But when they forget that they’re the Blues Explosion, and not the Self-Indulgent Arthouse Rock Explosion, things start to go a little astray. For all their intensity and full-on-ness, Spencer and his band really shouldn’t try to be the Ramones, or the New York Dolls. They lack the dumb charm of the former, and the ragged anger of the latter, and simply sound like they’re going through the motions — expertly, professionally, but without the personality that the bands they so clearly aspire to equalling put quite effortlessly into their music and their performances. The music was decent, but, despite the constant casting around for influences, there was a sameness to the set. It didn’t help that the band eschew setlists, and Spencer made little or no attempt to introduce songs, or indeed address the audience, obligatory lazy Hobbit reference aside. In the end, the Blues Explosion hammered their way through a rather relentless set that tended, at times, to sound a little like an extended jam session — a tight, sharp, professional jam session, but a jam nevertheless.

Spencer himself is a large part of the problem. Looking disconcertingly like Ben Stiller in a Billy Joel outfit, he has one move, of which he is clearly a little overly proud. He drops to his knee, as though genuflecting to Simins’ drum kit, often enough to worry any orthopaedic surgeons who might have been in the audience. But beyond that, the three musicians, packed tightly into the front and centre of an already small stage, were rather static performers. He seemed rather self-consciously clever when he did try to put on a bit of a show; a theremin’s always a questionable choice, and it does slightly suggest a hint of “Look at me — I’m ever so artsy.” The fact that he made a particular point of standing his guitar on its headstock when he took it off to play his theremin suggested only added to the impression.

Spencer plays a decent guitar; Bauer is capable of fine playing but too often wandered off into jangly, screechy pickings that made me wonder if his instrument was even in tune. Simins is capable of putting on a decent rhythm, and holds the band’s sound together well, his drumming often seeming to revolve around repeated triplet figures on a snare drum that he could surely hardly see from behind the curtain of hair that obscured his face for much of the show.

When Spencer wrapped up the main set after almost exactly one hour, calling out “Blues Explosion!” as he had at the end of nearly every song in the show, I looked around the venue. The audience, who had barely warmed to him during the show, were starting to thin out. A dozen, perhaps, at the front of the stage, had managed a little bit of a sway from side to side, but by and large Spencer and his exploding blues had failed to win the night.

DSC_7842The night, it must be noted, was won by Swamp Thing, JSBE’s support act. The soi-disant two-man blues roots juggernaut from Rotorua started their evening playing to an almost vacant floor in a largely empty Powerstation. But as Michael Barker started working his way round a minimal but more than sufficient drum kit, and Grant Haua began to make his acoustic guitar produce sounds that should by rights only come from a vintage Telecaster, the audience started to pick up on the intriguing music coming from the stage. As Spencer would shortly afterward, Swamp Thing had a somewhat unconventional understanding of the blues, cleaving only rarely to the conventions that came out of the Mississippi delta a hundred years ago. But they can play. Barker, in particular, is a very talented musician, his right hand often doing more on its own than many drummers can manage with two sticks and his left hand working a small keyboard to flesh out the band’s sound. They’re playing tomorrow night at the Tuning Fork, sharing the stage with the Warratahs. I’ll be there; I have a feeling that will be by far the best show I’ll see this week.

  • Steve McCabe

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