Tuesday August 12th, 2003 at TT the Bears in Cambridge, MA
King Missile III, Bradford Reed, Grand Buffet, & Sweatpant Boners

King Missile III Bradford Reed Grand Buffet Sweatpant Boners [all photos | video]

I busted into TT the Bear’s during Sweatpant Boners’ third song – quite an embarrassing entrance after I had harangued the band in order to secure my spot on their guest list. Singer “Robbie Road Steamer” was already in full tirade criticizing his audience, the band, and anything else that made itself apparent. I must have come in unnoticed, as the person sneaking into the club after me was chided for being late.

Sweatpant Boners’ shtick isn’t new. We’ve seen belligerent front men done before, from the mildly abusive GWAR, to the foul mouths of The Mentors and Anal Cunt, to the actual lunacy and rage of G.G. Allin. But this bandana’d and sunglassed vocalist plays it a little differently. Because his rage is never real, his barbs slide off like those of the young, foul-mouthed Redd Foxx – a quick sting, and then it’s on with the show.

Although the band has been around for several years, it has few long-term members; the members appear assembled mostly to sustain the frontman’s abuse. Each player is constantly derided, and, if they attempt to speak up, quickly ridiculed by Steamer’s quick, unrehearsed wit. At times the performance was played as if Steamer was a lounge act being backed up by a house band with insufficient rehearsal time. He appeared confused or frustrated by arrangements (particularly during the band’s cover of Guns ‘N’ Roses “My Michelle,” a song reportedly given to Steamer by little known New Hampshire band GNR when the members were unsure of their future.) At one point in the show, Steamer chastised guitarist Chris Pawlyk for not starting a song, only to learn that the song is actually begun by the other guitarist, Chad Gilligan. Unfazed, Steamer retorted that even he didn’t know what was going on and then peered at Pawlyk closely before demanding to know who he was. This elicited a chuckle from the ever-smirking crowd – one of the evening’s many despite a smothering air of Cambridge politically correct self-consciousness.

While the band may have given Steamer comic fodder, the audience was actually his major concern. Although generally debasing the crowd, he did reprieve several times to point to the gals in attendance, mouth “call me,” make the universal phone symbol with his thumb and pinky finger, and then point to the phone number written upon his arm. To improve his chances with the ladies, the bare-chested Steamer spent much of the set flexing and posing for the audience, grabbing his crotch, or playing would-be air guitar on a hollow owl lawn ornament. Gals, come and get him before he’s snatched up!

The band’s uneventful music – a loose rock and roll – serves only as a vehicle to Steamer’s always-humorous lyrics. Although they often dwell in the potty humor of The Bloodhound Gang or worse (a popular ditty entitled “#2” is about intestinal problems caused by a misfortunate experience at a Chinese Restaurant), a deeper interpretation often awaits discovery if you’re not afraid to scratch the surface. Of course, I’m unsure whether Steamer would disavow any connection to highbrow post-modernism or scoff at my ignorance and testify that all of his lyrics are the work of an intellectual superman. Maybe someday I’ll get up the nerve to ask him.

While the audience stood back to allow room for Sweatpant Boners’ tag-a-longs “El Rainmaker” (the Mexican wrestler wearing a hockey jersey and playing a rain stick) and “Jack Sellars” (a leather vest-wearing, prematurely-graying recorder player who serves as the band’s stage manager), they packed forward for Grand Buffet. Although I had never heard of the Pittsburgh rap duo, several members of the audience seemed to be following the twosome as if the band were The Dead. Whether the dozens of others pushing forward were already fans or merely curious, I can’t say.

While I’m in no way qualified to describe rap, much less critique it, I’ll attempt to set the scene. There were two white guys, Lord Grunge and Nate Kukla, pacing across the stage clutching microphones, occasionally jumping or kicking, and otherwise just sort of bobbing up and down while they pointed toward the audience with one arm or the other; you know, you’ve seen Cypress Hill on The Simpsons, it was like that.

Lord Grunge cursed a lot, using the phrase “some really dope-ass mother-fucking shit” more than once. In many ways he reminded me of Jay (Jason Mewes) as seen in the Kevin Smith films. Although his partner in Grand Buffet was not silent, he certainly was more soft spoken – a redheaded kid whom you just know spends most of his time smoking weed and playing hackey sack in the park. The duo rapped along with their portable CD player, which contained mostly beats, some music, and occasional backing vocal tracks.

Lord Grunge tirelessly hyped the band between (and during) songs to the point of hyperbole. Was their performance a commentary a la “Fear of a Black Hat,” or was the band so deep into the performance they had lost track of how many “forshizzle”s and “phat”s entered into their art. I’m leaning towards the former; their lyrical prowess, however, seemed to favor the latter. Quick delivery, smart rhymes, and often-serious subject matter were combined to create two or three-minute blasts of rap that, although never getting the audience dancing, did inspire them to “throw [their] hands in the air” when requested.

To fill the remaining minutes of their set, the guys busted out an impromptu and a cappella medley of Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People,” Guns ‘N’ Rose’s “Mr. Brownstown,” and Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll.” Grand Buffet is rap born out of those formative experiences, rather than Dana Dane, Whoodini and Dougie Fresh. I suppose that fact explains Grand Buffet better than anything I could conjure.

While Grand Buffet played, a curious drum kit sat idle just stage left of the duo. When their set ended and their fans left, Bradford Reed climbed upon the stage, sat behind the kit, and began tuning a curious stringed contraption that sat in the middle of the kit. The contraption is an instrument conceived of by Bradford named the pencilina (named as such because he originally played it with pencils.) It is mounted to lie flat on its back exposing two sets of strings (emulating both bass and guitar necks). A movable pickup rests on the wooden base and lies just below the suspended strings. A stick is placed in each grouping of strings with some strings running over, others under, the stick. This allowed the strings to be limited and their tones changed. The strings are usually struck with the dowels, often plucked, and occasionally bowed. Its tuning is anyone’s guess. The pencilina most closely resembles lap steel with incredibly high action, but even that is a stretch.

The sound of the instrument is not terribly different from a fretless guitar or bass, but as it would be impossible for Reed to play either of those instruments and drum, the pencilina proves that necessity is the mother of invention. While playing drums with one hand (mostly just kick, snare and cymbal although both a rack tom and high hat were present), Reed is still able to strike or pluck strings with his left, and shift those strings’ tones by moving the sticks. There were no terribly complex solos, and strings shifted at whole measures at best, but the slides during those shifts were fascinating. Augmented by pedal wizardry, it added a bit of otherworldly appeal.

As a performer, Bradford Reed was wry and somewhat formal. His dry humor and slight lisp brought to mind NPR’s Ira Glass or his favourite guest, David Sedaris. Outlandish (yet plausible) stories were told matter-of-factly, and the small audience smiled and shook their heads when presented with the finales to his offbeat anecdotes.

The novelty of his act wore off quickly and soon I was simply irritated by the strange man, his strange instrument, and his strange songs. However, just at the brink of giving up, something clicked and I began to understand (even anticipate) the changes and tunes. I can’t say I became a life-long fan, but by the end of the set, I, along with the twenty or so other folks in the room, was both fascinated and entertained by Bradford Reed and His Amazing Pencilina.

Between bands, pockets of the audience hypothesized about King Missile’s stage personnel. This was most telling. Those familiar with the band’s recent work as King Missile III should be well aware of the line-up, as it has been steady for several years. However, a crowd of less than two dozen had come for King Missile, and, of those fans, the majority looked as though they might have come to relive the band’s early Mystical Shit days. A second, much smaller, minority appeared to have held onto the band from its brief, almost straightforward, “Detachable Penis” moment in the MTV spotlight.

Both live and recorded, King Missile III is the voice of John S. Hall (of course), the bass and violin of Sasha Forte, and the drums, pencilina, and keyboard of Bradford Reed. While the sparse instrumentation was, at times, jarring and incomplete, it did suit the strength of King Missile – the rambling, skewed logic, and taboo tales of story man John S. Hall.

My hopes were high when the band opened with “Sensitive Artist”; however, this muddy, rearranged version lacked the crispness of the original recording done decades earlier, and my mood soon shifted from amped to puzzled. Although always Hall’s trademark, he seemed exceptionally bored by his own words. Another audience might have been insulted, but these fans understood this is simply Hall’s way. Even in moments when Hall was excited to the point of stammer, his voice was dull and monotonous. I tried to reprogram myself to be entertained by the beauty of his deadpan, but it was no doing and the songs simply seemed flat.

While the songs were lacking, the banter, in contrast, was lovely. Each band made special mention of Hanson who were playing next door at the Middle East, but Hall seemed particularly enamored with his experience meeting the band earlier that evening. His telling of the events was beguiling. Similarly, a rare moment of excitement surfaced after “Cheese Cake Truck” when Hall quickly turned to drumming Bradford Reed to compliment him on his accompaniment. Reed seemed confused and reported back that he played the same thing he always does, but Hall was convinced otherwise. Hall then entertained the notion that each King Missile performance could possibly highlight an hour-long drum-solo/set of Reed’s. Again, Reed reminded Hall that, basically, that’s what is happening on this tour. This seemed to finally ground Hall, who scratched his chin, muttered “yeah right” under his breath, and moved on with the set. It’s impossible to do the exchange justice in print, but, in person, it was rare impromptu comedic genius.

In what should have been a satisfying set list, the band played a parade of should-have-been hits spanning King Missile’s entire career. Fans of the band’s early hectic work were pacified with the “Sensitive Artist,” “Cheesecake Truck,” “Jesus Was Way Cool,” and a sloppy “Gary and Melissa” punctuated with forgotten lyrics. The mid period brought out “Martin Scorsesi” and “Detachable Penis.” While surely newer songs were peppered throughout the set, I did recognize “The Little Sandwich That Got a Guilt Complex...” and closer ”The Miracle of Childbirth,” as well as a quick trio of the “Pain Series” from the most recent album – the latter being no more than a series of curses and expletives one might utter during various painful situations (such as a paper cut). Juvenile? Yes, but, as with Sweatpant Boners, there is always more to it than what appears. King Missile has always been primarily arty and satirical despite dwelling in material others can only deliver as lewd. Songs such as “Things that are Gay” examine society’s notions of sexuality and require the audience to think about our own arbitrary catagorizations and biases. Of course, the song also includes a lot of direct language spoken in the most straight, yet vulgar manner Hall can manage – and let me tell you, his grasp of the “blue” portion of the English language is well developed.

While the show wasn’t entirely as I had envisioned it, it was probably as it should be. I left the show feeling that I should have simply spoken with John S. Hall at the club – taken in his personality and considerable wit, and then retreated to home to listen to his songs. Surely that would have been the best of both worlds. As it was, I felt a little let down by King Missile, something that was certainly amplified by the high bar placed by the direct and engaging openers Sweatpant Boners. Sometimes a live show isn’t about the material you have to work with, but simply how you work it.