When I saw the announcement, I added the gig to the Too Much Rock show calendar. I didn't think much more about it. Jon Spencer is a legend, right? Just go see him again. As the date got closer, I began my prep. Had I actually seen him before? The website said no, but surely I had at least seen Blues Explosion. Probably a couple of times. At some festival I bet. And wasn't there that one time at The Hurricane? Well, if there was, I had no proof or actual memory of it. Further research told me that Blues Explosion had been officially put to bed (due to guitarist Judah Bauer's health concerns), prompting Spencer to put together new project The HITmakers. I picked up the new album. It sounded like Jon Spencer and I decided to go to the gig. Later I'd learn Quasi was opening the night (and without coincidence, serving as a large portion of The HITmakers touring lineup). I had definitely seen them before. And it was one of the best shows I saw at the old Record Bar. I'm definitely going to the show.
Just before 8pm on a very stormy night, I walked into the recordBar. The stage was set. But something wasn't quite as I remembered it. Turns out I had seen Quasi during an odd period in the band's history when it was a straightforward guitar/bass/drums trio. For most of the band's history the band has been a duo comprised solely of keyboardist Sam Coomes and drummer Janet Weiss. This was the duo on stage. So, in a way, I hadn't really seen Quasi before either – I only thought I had.
Duos are always about interplay and the shared energy of its players. Quasi played it loose. Veteran performers and excellent musicians have the skills to let compositions be gloriously rough around the edges, yet still retain a thread back to pop. The noise came early. Coomes beat on his keyboard as an introduction to (and a sputtering finale for) most songs. Occasionally he lifted a leg up over the keyboard to operate a theremin-like device with a haphazard wave of his foot. He's not afraid of adding noise or some free jazz chaos. Weiss played along happily, occasionally glimpsing at Coomes to see if it was time to focus. Often, she knew without looking up. Generally, the transformation was subtle; the chaotic keyboard organically resolved to a simple pattern, the drums slowly locked in, a bass line was added, and then without firm demarcation the band was now in the middle a smart little pop song. Weiss never settled though. In any one song she may play four or five different patterns. Her fills were long, precise, and lyrical. Coomes handled most of the vocals, though Weiss contributed plenty. Songs came quickly and stacked on top of one another with freeform commotion filling any otherwise available space. It wasn't until the band announced its final song that the duo really addressed the audience, and then it was to gentle chide us that we were too polite – something Weiss hoped we'd get over as the night continued. Midwestern nice is in my blood, so I couldn't make any promises of ribaldry, but I would try commit this version of Quasi to memory for next time.
The transition from opening act to headlining act was quick, and fifteen minutes later Jon Spencer walked onto the stage and picked up his guitar. He was flanked by cohorts Sam Coomes on keyboards and Bob Bert on second percussion (more on that in a bit). The HITmakers' initial drummer, M. Sord (real name Mike Gard), has stepped aside (possibly permanently, maybe not) creating an opening for Janet Weiss at the back of the stage. The band came together organically, with Coomes and M. Sord serving as the backing band for Spencer's solo work. Bob Bert (of Spencer's former former project, Pussy Galore) joined that band when the need for noise become evident. It was with this assemblage that Spencer delivered his trademark down and dirty rock & roll.
Like Quasi before them, Spencer launched into the set without much pomp and piled song after song. Seventeen songs before the ample encore, in fact. It started with "Get It Right Now" from the new album. A good portion of that album got played, but so did tracks from his 2018 solo album, and from the catalogs of both Blues Explosion and Pussy Galore. Longtime fans of Spencer's who might be unsure of the current tour should fear nothing – this is the Jon Spencer you came for. The first break in the action came when Spencer asked for the house lights to be dimmed. A second happened when Spencer asked someone in the front row recording with his cell phone to stop. While a bit confrontational, it was handled well. Being a performer today is tricky. However, I took the dim lights as strike one, sensitivity to cameras as strike two, and not wanting to get tossed out, I made only minimal use of my camera from there on out. Later, on the backside of "Overload," Spencer got on his soapbox about the "motherfuckers" out there. In this case it was the Supreme Court (ignited by the leaked Roe opinion), the Federalist Society, and evidently all of Florida. All excellent targets. With vocals drenched in deep echo, he warned repeatedly that, "They're already here." William Wallace couldn't have rallied the crowd any better.
Throughout the set, Spencer’s guitar was winding and growling. It always sounds angry and ready to pounce but flashy solos and heroics aren’t his style. It’s simple libido. His vocals have long since left the crazed Elvis impersonator stage, but they remained shouted, urgent, and just as libidinous. The playing of both Weiss and Coomes continued to be amazingly solid, though both toned down their earlier extravagances. Of course, when Coomes blasted out the organ introduction to “Junk Yard” (the current album’s lead track), all eyes were on him and all bodies were jumping. Coomes also provided second vocals (not backing vocals) alongside Spencer, with thoughtfully arranged interplay often sending my head bouncing back and forth as if I were watching Djokovic edge Nadal. Weiss took her turn providing supporting vocals during a cover of Pussy Galore's "NYC:1999!," creating one of the night's highlights. Bert, however, was the wildcard and always a highpoint. Although supplied with a traditional kick drum and snare, it was the assortment of junkyard parts that demanded attention. With a hammer in each hand, he pounded out complementary and clattering rhythms on car springs, gas tanks, exhaust pipes, and more, bringing the band's dirty roadhouse rock & roll even deeper into the mud.
After nearly an hour, the band thanked the audience and left the stage, prompting genuine cries for an encore. Soon the quartet acquiesced, delivering another 20-minutes of unscripted music that continued to span Spencer's catalog. Although the dancing continued, it exploded into a seismic event when the audience recognized the introduction to "Bellbottoms." Although the cut is from a 1994 Blues Explosion album, the song was used to great effect in the 2017 film "Baby Driver," cementing its place in Spencer's canon. Though as the band has done at other performances, it was only the introduction, and the blues-influenced rocker quickly morphed into another track. A cruel tease, or a thoughtful compromise?
When the band left the stage the next time it was for real. As the houselights were restored, I packed my camera knowing it held proof that I had now seen Jon Spencer, and that he had put on a hell of a show that I wouldn't forget. I was also sure that I had seen the classic Quasi duo, experiencing the chaos that lives just as deep in the project's DNA as its pop pedigree. Of course, having seen either of them before means little. The next time I hear that Jon Spencer coming to town, I'll still put the gig on the Too Much Rock show calendar. After all, he's a legend.