By , on April 10, 2009

Archives, Gigs

My hat–or better yet, my paisley babushka–is off to Little Steven Van Zandt a/k/a Miami Steve of the E Street Band a/k/a Silvio of “The Sopranos.” Through sheer force of will, and with an iron grip on the organizational wheel, he pulled off the seemingly impossible: the first International Underground Garage Festival, all 12 hours and all 45 acts of it, held Saturday  under threatening skies on Randall’s Island in the middle of New York’s East River. The New York Times reported the turnout at 16,000 fans, roughly half of whom wore Johnny Thunders t-shirts.

Arriving around 4:00 PM to the strains of the Pete Best Band, I was checking in backstage with Mark Satlof of the fest’s PR firm Shore Fire Media when I spotted guest MC Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. I bum-rushed the former “77 Sunset Strip” star for his signature on my treasured copy of his 1993 autobiography Kooky No More, which Byrnes proudly showed off to fellow 15-minutes-of-famer Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore.

I took up a position on the flat, muddy field in the vicinity of the Robert Christgau family and settled in for the long haul. Unfortunately, I’d already missed the first 33 sets–each only five to fifteen minutes long–by such geezer garage greats as the Creation, Chocolate Watch Band, Electric Prunes,and Davie Allen & the Arrows; as well as those of their eager Nineties descendents the Shazam (Louisville, KY), Caesars (Sweden), Swingin’ Neckbreakers (Trenton, NJ), Boss Martians (Seattle, WA), Stems (Australia), Paybacks (Detroit, MI), and Mooney Suzuki (NYC, NY). Meanwhile, the original punk-era garage revival–sparked circa 1975-76 by Greg Shaw’s Bomp label and Lenny Kaye’s classic Nuggets anthology–was represented by the Fleshtones, Lyres, Fuzztones, and Chesterfield Kings, all of whom I missed as well. But that still left twelve acts and a helluva good-rockin’ time for a mere $20 advance ticket (yes, you read that figure right). Said price included big-screen video projection and a technicolor-costumed line of shapely female go-go dancers (including, briefly, Drew Barrymore) on a raised platform at the rear of the stage.

Nancy Sinatra fronted a large, horn-laden band with Clem Burke of Blondie on drums and veteran L.A. sessioneer Don Randi on keyboards. Her Vegas-flavored set kicked off with “Tony Rome,” the theme from one of daddy Frank’s less-celebrated motion pictures; closed with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” (natch), and sandwiched in newly-recorded songs composed by Morrissey and Thurston Moore. The Romantics were better when I saw them at Hurrah in 1978, but Wally Palmar & Co. showed spirit and solid musicianship in a 20-minute set that closed, inevitably, with “What I Like About You.”

The Dictators, restored to full strength with the return of guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, wowed the hometown crowd with a stadium-strength onslaught highlighted by the day’s true anthem, “Who Will Save Rock & Roll?” Both singer Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things may be staring down 70, but I quite enjoyed their brand of psych-tinged r&b, especially the closing rave-up “L.S.D.”

Big Star with Alex Chilton played and sang “September Gurls” and “In The Street” in a very competent but somewhat mechanical fashion. Seventy-five year-old Bo Diddley was suffering a cold and played sitting down, but he took more chances than most by mixing reggae and rap (!) in with his sacrosanct standards of the mid-Fifties. The Raveonettes played two songs in ten minutes and were gone, due to the increasingly doubtful weather. (The persistent drizzle didn’t turn to rain until the festival closed at around 9:30 PM, nearly an hour ahead of schedule.)

Readers may decide for themselves if just two original members (not including the drummer or the lead guitarist) should allow a present-day band to be called the New York Dolls. But with masterful, glammed-up front man David Johansen and rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain leading the charge, and ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sam Yaffa subbing for the late Arthur “Killer” Kane (who died of leukemia on 7/13/04, just weeks prior to this show), the Dolls turned in a truly memorable performance. They rampaged through “Personality Crisis,” “Private World,” and Bo Diddley’s “Pills” before turning reflective on a medley of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” and “Lonely Planet Boy.” It made for a touching tribute to the band’s four (!) deceased members: Kane, Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, and original drummer Billy Murcia.

The Strokes aroused the antipathy of certain audience members who just couldn’t accept their appearance between/equation with the Dolls and the Stooges. At one point between tunes, singer Julian Casablancas told us that “I’m a shallow guy” — an admission I find embodied in his bland lyrics and lackadaisical delivery. But the playing was tight and forceful throughout–and over the past 35 years, I’ve had to endure much worse while waiting for the act I came to see. (Anybody remember It’s A Beautiful Day, Iron Butterfly, or Aorta?)

The Stooges blew us all away. Love or hate him, you simply can’t take your eyes off Iggy Pop. Behind him, Ron Asheton (guitar), his brother Scott a/k/a “Rock Action” (drums), and ex-Minuteman Mike Watt (bass) made a huge, hellacious noise on songs from The Stooges (1969) and Funhouse (1970). In the course of their hour-long closing set, Iggy climbed atop the amps; attacked one of the large mobile cameras filming the show; and successfully demanded of the security staff that a couple dozen enthusiastic audience members be allowed on stage.

If the festival had a consistent weak spot, it was due to the breakdown (after about the first hour) of the much-touted revolving stage–which, had it functioned properly, would have allowed for a seamless change-over. Instead, it became necessary to kill some time between sets, a task left to not only Steve Van Zandt but also such dubious VIPs as Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico, who announced that “I don’t really like this kind of music”; and Kim Fowley, spreading his singular brand of bad vibes at major rock festivals since 1969.

Hey, Steve: Let’s do it again next year, OK?

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