Now, add an art and social consciousness to the mix: a poet’s ear for language, a madman’s craving for chaos, the hearts of damaged lovers. Rock ‘n’ roll is the offspring of some strange chemical marriages, but the one consummated in Cleveland might be one of the strangest, and most enduring.
It’s here that the avant-rock approaches of Crocus Behemoth (later David Thomas of Pere Ubu) and the stoopid proto-punk of Cheetah Chrome could find common ground, however brief, in Rocket from the Tombs; where Chrome, Blitz, Bators, Magnum and Zero would create the New York Dolls-inspired Frankenstein, before forming an even bigger monster — the Dead Boys — when they moved to New York City almost three decades ago.
Cleveland punk-rocked with sad geniuses like Peter Laughner, who wrote "Life Stinks" (on Pere Ubu’s groundbreaking "The Modern Dance"), penned record reviews with an anti-style comparable to his more famous buddy, Lester Bangs, then died at 24 when his pancreas gave out from alcohol and pills abuse.
Fundamentally different than Detroit — its larger, more arrogant industrial cousin 200 miles to the northwest — Cleveland apparently never forgot that it is people that make a city work. Living on either side of the Valley of Machines that hugs the Cuyohoga River, citizens still walk the streets in aging but tidy neighborhoods that stretch from a community called "The Edge" (because it straddles Lakewood, an old suburb) on the western city limits, to a far northeastern section of town known as Beachland.
It’s in working class neighborhoods like this — blend Hamtramck with pre-gentrified Ferndale — that rock ’n’ roll can still flourish at street level. It is a place in which to grow up, act up, settle down and grow old: an urban cycle of life that now seems perversely un-American in a time when most choose personal space and sprawl over density and community.
So it was an inspired choice to set Little Steven’s debut Underground Garage live showcase here at the 500-seat Beachland Ballroom, a former Croatian social hall that has hosted some of the world’s best indie bands since opening in 2000. Steven Van Zandt — who is Springsteen’s long-time guitarist and an actor on HBO’s mega-hit, The Sopranos — is underground rock’s most ambitious patron. His syndicated radio show (it can be heard on WCSX-FM 94.7 Sunday, 7-9 p.m.) is built around the endearing idea that there is a "dysfunctional family of garage." Its target audience is, in Van Zandt’s words, "Freaks, misfits and outcasts." Few could pull off a show broadcast in hundreds of markets that champions this obscure sonic outsider art. But Van Zandt does it. And all indications are that the mainstream is catching on, and so far many Detroit bands, from The Paybacks and the Fondas to the Dirtbombs and the Romantics, have benefited from airplay on Van Zandt’s show.
This sold-out showcase on Friday, Feb. 21 — featuring the Romantics, the Fondas, Cobra Verde, the Chesterfield Kings and the Reigning Sound, bands handpicked by Van Zandt — is testament to the power of his radio show. (Van Zandt promises similar live shots in the future, including a late-summer, three-day garage-rock fest in the Northeast set to feature 70 bands).
Van Zandt’s generous spirit and the sponge-like psyche of the Cleveland music fan fits together hand-in-glove. From the stage, the DJ/guitarist works the crowd by playing celebrity MC, asking for patience when equipment malfunctions — "What can I say? It’s live rock ’n’ roll" — and giving Fondas’ singer Julie Benjamin a healthy squeeze moments before the band strikes their first chord.
He seems thrilled to introduce the Chesterfield Kings, a psych-garage hair band from Rochester, New York. One guy in the audience packed close to the stage yells, "Hey, Sil! Silvio!" But Van Zandt is not in mob character, and he skillfully ignores him.
Tonight is genuinely all about the music.
That is just fine with Memphis, Tennessee’s Greg Cartwright of the Reigning Sound. Cartwright, you’ll note, is a musician’s musician, a guitarist whose earlier bands the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers influenced the White Stripes, the Detroit Cobras and other local bands who combined soul and blues with raw, amplified rock.
Tonight, the Reigning Sound stands out as a band whose lyrical sophistication doesn’t quite fit the garage milieu — but whose sound is too edgy and complex to gain acceptance from mainstream fans. (Word is that Cartwright is writing songs with Jackie DeShannon and the Cobras, a move that could help lift him from the throws of unjust obscurity).
Detroit’s Fondas — whose tune "Wanna be" is spun heavily on Little Steven’s show — were the least known of all performing, which works to their advantage. They’ve been compared to the Flamin’ Groovies, though neither guitarist — Mark J. Niemenski or Steve Shaw — is as Beatles/Stones/Byrds-obsessed as Cyril Jordan, the Groovies’ narcissistic stylist.
The Fondas’ strength is that there are no stylists in the band. It’s all about a group of people making obscure and anonymous songs — most of the band’s 12-song set consists of covers of soul and R&B oddities — sound familiar and danceable. It’s a crafty approach, overseen by Shaw, Niemenski and drummer Chip Sercombe, Detroit music vets who’ve known each other since the early ’80s.
It all wouldn’t work, though, without Benjamin, the Fondas stunning frontwoman. She wins over the Cleveland crowd by doing nothing, and doing it elegantly. She moves to the beats without actually dancing. Her singing is understated and just hints at emotion, without ever losing control. There is no witty repartee with bandmates or audience. She exerts a Victorian sexual intensity — the way she handles a microphone, brushes a hand across her thigh, or the way she fixes her eyes on you from the stage. She creates a disconnected tension that draws you in.
A set highlight is the new "Make You Mine," a fast, crunchy rocker sounding straight from the Kinks’ "Lola vs. the Powerman" era.
The headlining Romantics are a band whose rise and fall and rise again is as much a sweet story of perseverance as it is a keyhole glimpse into the backstabbing greed that pulses through the music industry.
The band fits Van Zandt’s rock ’n’ roll recovery mission perfectly. Evidenced by last year’s intermittently brilliant 61/49, the Romantics still possess a missionary zeal of their own.
In Cleveland, the band appears loose and relaxed. Frontman Wally Palmar circulates through the crowd, greeting old friends, watching the other bands, enjoying the spectacle. On stage, the Hamtramck native is a pure rock ’n’ roll showman, a still-alluring dervish in black leather with a Rickenbacker and harmonica. (Palmar, who turns 51 this year, has filled out around the middle, but still looks a full decade younger.)
Bassist Mike Skill, bumps Palmar on their rousing take of the Pretty Things’ "Midnight to Six Man," and on the Small Faces-inspired standout "Out of Mind (Into My Head)," a song driven by guitarist Coz Canler’s jangly power. Fill-in drummer Brad Elvis — replacing Clem Burke, who is reportedly busy in a recording session — keeps the beat-pound with measurable skill.
The crowd — kids in Rancid T-shirts and middle-aged geezers in Browns’ and Michael Stanley Band gear — responds in kind to the Romantics powerful bursts. They connect, dance and sing along to band mainstay "When I Look in Your Eyes."
When it’s over, musicians and glammy, aging Cleveland scenesters gather in the club’s basement for Budweisers. Everyone’s friendly and gracious, but none more so than Van Zandt, who works the room with butterfly’s grace. His hands are everywhere, gesturing and pointing, shirt opened to a hairy chest, red bandana wrapped tight.
At one point, the Fondas’ Chip Sercombe thanks Van Zandt for playing the band’s music on his show and for inviting them to Cleveland to perform. The DJ/guitarist interrupts and says: "No, man, thank you. Without the music, this doesn’t happen. Thank you."
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