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Thursday September 1st, 2022 at The Replay Lounge in Lawrence, KS
Labretta Suede and the Motel 6, & The Mad Kings

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I figured it would be a night in. Then I got restless. I saw a band from Spain was playing at Farewell. Punks. Anarchists. Interesting. A live YouTube video made them look appealing. Sold. Plans made. Until The Replay posted on Instagram. Matinee show. Band from New Zealand. Looking a lot like The Cramps and mining the same rockabilly roots. Only one opener? Early show? Outside? Looks like I’ve got a date with the Kansas Turnpike. Lo siento mis amigos españoles.

The night began with Lawrence’s own The Mad Kings. The band lined up as a six-piece led by vocalist and guitarist Scott Splawn, with John Cutler handling a bit of the vocals and all the harmonica, bassist Jimmy Kegin and drummer DRUMS handling the rhythm section, and two “Mad Queens” Lauren Sullivan and BACKVOX2 handling backing vocals. Most of them have decades of experience in the local music scene. None has ever been famous. The band is worn. Every one of them looks like they’ve been on a Harley that skidded across the pavement. Splawn chainsmokes between songs. Like the rest of the band, he’s also working on a Hamm’s. Well except for Sullivan. She’s got her own concoction. Maybe it’s tea. There’s a little dropper bottle up there too. Some sort of tincture. Maybe it’s good for her voice. Maybe it’s easier than licking a Sonoran Desert toad between songs. Splawn’s in a good mood. Happy to see the large crowd and so many friends that he hadn’t seen in a while. He dubs them unicorns. Cutler adds more like “uni-cornballs.” Replay matinees have that vibe. Friends watching friends on pleasant summer evenings. You can’t be pretentious in a tent.

The band plays the blues. That can mean a lot of different things. Maybe it’s Chicago blues. There’s some boogie in a lot of songs. But not all. Some recall primitive rock & roll. And some still have their country roots. Splawn would howl those ones. Some were punctuated by pained, bent-string solos wrenched from his Fender. Stratocaster style. With Stratocaster faces. His rhythm section had no flash. They shouldn’t. But they did sound good. The sound engineer had the patio dialed in. In fact, it never sounded better. The Mad Kings never sounded better. Maybe a little loose, but if I know anything about the blues (and I’m not saying I do), then precision is the thirteenth most important part of a good set. Choreographed steps, claps, and spins from your backing vocalists is probably more important. Luckily The Mad Kings had those. And better yet those backing vocalists sounded good. And when Sullivan had the chance to step up and take over lead vocals, she sounded real good. Ballsy and big. Cutler took a turn on lead vocals too. And damn if he didn’t sound good as well. Most the time he just laid down the sort of pat harmonica licks you’d demand.

The band played for 50 minutes. Thirteen songs. Songs they’ve been playing for years. Most birthed by Splawn, but maybe some were stolen, dragged through the flood plain, and reclaimed. I wouldn’t know any better. There are no Mad Kings records. Nothing on Spotify. If you want to hear the band, get to the gig. Lots did. Some were the reclusive “unicorns” while others were true-blue regulars that the band called out by name. Most had grey hair. It didn’t really matter that the show was all ages, there weren’t any kids to be found – just old men in skate shoes wearing t-shirts memorializing bands from the ‘80s, and bad-ass dancing ladies who stopped caring about society’s expectations when Clinton was still in the White House. When the show ended, the division between band and fans vanished and each told the other that they’d buy them a drink.

There was an hour gap between bands. A gap created to fill the evening. To keep the bar busy until other bands and their fans would arrive for a different show. It was a long time to wait, but at least I was outside on a nice evening. Except outside people smoke, and the air was thick with tobacco and weed. I entertained myself trying to untangle the mystery of the headliner. Let me take a stab at it.

Frontwoman Labretta Suede (let’s not bother with real names) and guitarist husband Johnny Moondog (I said we won’t bother) make up Labretta Suede and the Motel 6. They’ve done it for almost twenty years. During that time, rhythm sections have come and gone. Mostly as Suede and Moondog have come and gone. Versions of the band have been built in Auckland, New Zealand, rebuilt in NYC, and rebuilt again in Dallas, Texas. On this tour we’d have Texas bassist Marco Villalobos with New York drummer Capt’n Gerry. They’re a lively crew known as much for their fashion and flare as their punkabilly music. Press photos show one tall and imposing member in fishnets and heels, making him taller and somehow more imposing. Suede is usually in something less. Her background is in dance. In burlesque. And she’s a vintage fashion enthusiast. Ask her about 1930s formal wear if you dare. On this night, the attire was subdued. There were no men in heels, unless you count Moondog's cowboy boots. Suede wasn’t in shoes at all, just sparkling tights and a belted sequined leotard with some peek-a-boo mesh right in the middle. Big hair. Big make up. Petite package.

The set began with an instrumental rockabilly number. Instead of vocals, Suede yelped and hiccupped and huffed through it, occasionally lodging the microphone into her mouth for hands free operation. The long-awaited return of Lux Interior. There’s no need to be coy, The Cramps are an obvious influence, and LSATM6’s songs are just as filthy with twangy guitar, simple seductive rhythms, and reverb-drenched vocals. Her voice has a big vibrato. She can use it to terrify like Diamanda Galas or really stick it to you like Jello Biafra (as was the case in one triple-time punk rager). A cover of The Flamin' Groovies “Teenage Head” was so nasty it made the original sound like power pop. And the audience sang along. Several songs (such as the unreleased treat “Otherside of Love”) cleaned up the band’s sound enough to qualify the quartet as garage rock. Even then, the garage was on fire, and when the major labels came knocking, the band knew better than to promise an album full of this modern proto-punk.

Throughout the band’s set, Labretta Suede was moved by the pounding (and I mean pounding) drums of Capt’n Gerry. Lots of shimmy, a leg extended with a pointed toe tracing arcs across the stage, and wait, was that the Charleston? Always in motion. Always connecting with a different audience member. After thirty minutes she had collapsed face down. Then she started to thrust her hips into the stage. Writhing. Then she was on her back, rolling up to her shoulders, her legs kicking in the air. Then spreading them looking up at Moondog. He handed over his guitar and she worked it PG-13 style before getting off her knees and taking it to his amp for some controlled howling feedback. It was quite a finale. But was it? Twenty-more minutes of music followed. More of the same, with Suede chatting up the audience like they were old friends between songs, working them for call and response vocalizations in the middle of songs, and trapsing through the audience and onto tables when she really wanted their attention. Of course she already had it, and kept it the whole set, eventually pulling the audience from their stools and booths to the area in front of the stage for a dance party and a second finale.

After the show, the band was mobbed by a deep line of well-wishers and just as many waiting to buy a copy of the band’s latest 7” (which includes that excellent cover of “Teenage Head”). I didn’t wait long before I just slipped Johnny Moondog a Too Much Rock button and headed for the door. I figure you’ve gotta dance with the one what brung you, and I needed to complete my date with the Kansas Turnpike.