Last Wednesday, August 17, while I was at KEXP in the afternoon for my intern work, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion came by for an in-studio session. I know the band mainly from their song "Bellbottoms", though I know I've heard a few others over the years. After hearing their fierce set and funny banter, I realized I shouldn't miss their full set at Neumos that night. Opening for the band was Hillstomp.
Hillstomp were just that: heavy rockabilly, or maybe roots rock is the better term. They were a duo, playing electric guitar and drums (with a bucket for one drum) when I came in (a bit late), later switching to banjo and adding washboard to the bucket-and-drumset. They traded off lead and backing vocals as well. I was amused to realize after a bit that although their music was the sort of thing that I tend to think is "not my thing", it actually was—there's some point where it becomes too folk/country, but these guys were on the right side of rock for me. (I was reminded of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's album Howl, which is a similar thing: very much roots/Americana/blues, but clearly tied back in to their usual heavier rock style.) For their last song, the drummer took the electric guitar and played a rhythm line, accented with kick drum and cymbal, while guitarist played tamborine instead and both sang a pretty rollicking tune. Their whole set was pretty good; they mentioned they're coming back to Seattle on Friday September 23, playing at the High Dive, and I'd recommend checking them out.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is also grounded in roots rock, '50s rhythm 'n blues by way of '90s hard rock and punk, with touches of gospel and soul. Jon Spencer's vocal performance involved a lot of shouting out to the audience and repeating "Blues Explosion!" in a way that at first I thought of as "that hip-hop thing", but then realized that of course it's much older than that—it was the style of Gospel revival preachers, and so of course of the rock music that grew out of that. And "Blues Explosion!" was shouted or drawled out so often, it ceased to have meaning as the band's name; it was just a vocal punctuation to the music.
As for the music, it had a certain odd formlessness—the band definitely has songs, but in performance they came across as a continuous rock jam, just switching from one riff or vamp to the next. And apparently the songs did not have lyrics so much as words—again, specific songs (like "Bellbottoms") probably have specific lyrics, but the performance mainly seemed to consist of Spencer shouting exclamations or singing seemingly impromptu bits. Despite the jumbled ramshackle approach, it all worked. Given that off-the-cuff quality, it felt both pointless to hope they'd perform "Bellbottoms" and inevitable that it'd come up in some form. Sure enough, halfway through the set, they made a clear break into the introductory section of "Bellbottoms" (minus the strings), much to my excitement, only to suddenly veer off into something else with semi-distinguishable lyrics about "two types of love" (the song indeed being "2Kindsa Love", it turns out).
I actually thought of their performance as being in four sets. They began with a half-hour of continuous rambling rock before finally pausing a moment (after an extra-emphatic "Blues Explosion!") to take a breath. Plunging back in, the second group of songs had longer groovier bass lines, less singing/shouting, and more instrumental focus. Somewhere in there was the teaser of "Bellbottoms" and the song "2Kindsa Love". That merged into a third group of bluesy jams, with a surprising (to me) switch to guitarist Judah Bauer singing "Fuck the man!" And the other surprise to me was the rocking finish to the main set, specifically that Spencer had been hiding a theremin in back. The encore was the fourth part, featuring several more regularly-structured songs. And finally at the end, they went back into a version of "Bellbottoms", which I figured would be the big finale—but even then they weren't done, segueing instead into a slower blues song with an abrupt end to finish the night.
It was quite the experience. I felt in the end that it dragged a bit because not only was I unfamiliar with most of the music, it also was chaotic enough that it was hard to get into it. But I was glad that I went, and I figure if I want a better idea of how the songs work individually, I can always pick up the reissued album Orange and at least enjoy the recorded version of "Bellbottoms".
Because of my iPhone camera failing, I wasn't able to take any photos at the concert. Instead, you could check out this set of photos from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's in-studio appearance at KEXP, and while you're at it you can also listen to their in-studio performance over streaming audio on the KEXP website. (I recommend the "Full Performance" rather than just the individual songs, as Jon Spencer had some pretty funny things to say while DJ Kevin Cole interviewed him.)