Concert Review: Mike Watt (Two Shows)

Mike Watt, Six Finger Satellite
Bogie’s (Albany, New York), October 8, 1995

Mike Watt’s solo album Ball Hog or Tug Boat? was a celebrity filled affair that clearly illustrated how many of today’s stars are indebted to Watt for his seminal work with the Minutemen and fIREHOSE. Watt has now restored his working-class slob rock ethic with a touring band including non-celebrity guitarist Nels Cline and drummers Mike Preussner and Vince Meghrouni. Last Sunday at Bogie’s this low-rent foursome blew Ball Hog (and all the guest instrumentalists mustered for its recording) out of the water with a roaring evening of lumbering rock and roll fun. (Ball Hog‘s guest vocalists probably should have stuck around, as listening to Watt sing is akin to listening to Keith Richards’ voice being played at 16 rpm. But who can quibble over homely singing from such an affable singer?)

Watt began his show in proper prole fashion by lugging his bass case on stage and plugging in and powering up all by his lonesome with nary a tuning tech in sight. Then (joy!) it was time for heavy wondrous bass magic — for nearly two hours Watt pounded his instrument with clenched meat mallets and/or deftly enacted the Sacred Dance of the Palsied Sausages with his broad workman-like hands. The two drummers and Watt created a vast polyrhythmic bottom over which Cline worked his iconoclastic guitar digressions, which included fun techniques like using a kitchen whisk in lieu of a pick. Do not try this at home.

Song selection was exemplary, with highlights from the fIREHOSE and Minutemen catalogs supplementing the best originals from Ball Hog and covers like Sonic Youth’s “Tuff Gnarl”, Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black”, and Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.” Watt honored his past by dedicating “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” to late Minuteman guitarist D. Boon, and his present by dedicating the self-deprecatory “One Reporter’s Opinion” to his wife and erstwhile Black Flag bassist, Kira Roessler. Watt’s between song banter showed why he remains the Populist Bassist, as he urged the crowd: “Don’t believe the hype, believe the bass” and “Go start your own bands!” It was inspiring to these cynical old ears to hear Watt singing “The kids of today must protect themselves against the seventies…” to the very young crowd at this all ages show. Hey Kids! Listen to Watt!

Six Finger Satellite’s opening set was equally riveting; a lesser artist than Watt would not want to have to follow these guys every night. The black-clad foursome sounded something like Henry Rollins fronting 1976-era Devo, or maybe a bit like Suicide joining the Butthole Surfers for an encore, and even perhaps like Chrome had Chrome possessed any musical talent. In summary: loud, mean, fast, scary. Drummer Rick Pelletier was an astonishing ghostly pale blur pounding out the incredible prestissimo rhythms that drove the Satellites’ frappe of detuned guitar, anachronistic synthesizer squall, and howled digitally-delayed vocals. Singer Mister J. Ryan had molto stage presence as he hollered and glowered enough for three men, freeing bassist James Apt and guitarist/keyboardist John MacLean to ply their fare without the distraction of having to pull “moves” for the crowd. Six Finger Satellite have released two albums and several EP’s on Sub Pop Records. Find them. Buy them. This challenging ensemble deserves your support.

Mike Watt and the Pair of Pliers, Cobra Verde
Valentine’s (Albany, New York), October 13, 2000

Last time I saw Mike Watt was in late 1995 when he was touring behind his solo debut album, Ball Hog or Tugboat? I was struck at the time by the sense of massive physical presence that the former Minutemen and fIREHOSE bassist exuded: he was a big man, with big hands, making big noises on a big bass guitar, shouting some big bass vocals over such big songs as Ball Hog‘s “Big Train.” Just big all over, man, if you know what I mean or where I’m coming from: Watt was just big. Or at least he was until nine months ago, when a life-threatening infection of the perineum knocked 130 pounds off of his frame and took the bass out of his meat-mitts for an extended period — the first such layoff he had endured since picking up his four-string axe a quarter century earlier as a teenager in San Pedro, California.

So when Watt and his bandmates (drummer Vince Meghrouni from the Ball Hog tour and new guitarist Tom Watson) took the stage Friday night at Valentine’s, there was a palpable sense of anticipation and (maybe) just a tinge of trepidation about how the hiatus might have modified the man — since Watt was visibly smaller, older and more frail looking than he’d been on the last go round. But Watt’s smaller stature just meant that his hands looked all that much bigger by comparison — and there was no denying the big, big sounds that he beat out of his bass over the course of a big, 90-minute (including encore) set that even included another big romp through “Big Train.”

Not to mention such equally fabulous Ball Hog cuts as “Drove from Pedro” and “E-Ticket Ride” (which found Watson jumping to drums and Meghrouni handling vocals and tenor sax). Nor such stalwart jazz-punk bombs from the Minutemen era as “One Reporter’s Opinion,” “Little Man With the Gun in His Hand” and “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost,” all of which served to remind me (and many others, I’d dare to speculate), once again, just how incredibly fabulous, forward-looking and ferocious Watt’s first act had been, prior to guitarist D. Boon’s own brush with death–which (unlike Watt’s) ended up with a “win” in the Grim Reaper’s column instead.

Watt and friends also showed phenomenal skill as interpretive artists, covering–no, make that reinventing–Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye,” John Cale’s “Fear,” the Urinals’ “Ack Ack Ack” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black,” while also spinning off a sequence of free-noise jams that would have made both Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers blush at the sheer audacity of the attack unfolding before them — while also filling those bands with shame for their own shortcomings. But hey, Watt and his Pliers woulda shamed anyone with the set they delivered Friday night, which left me not only reeling, but convinced that I’d seen the most talented, powerful rock trio to tread a stage since, oh, maybe King Crimson’s Red line-up of 1974. Or, hell, maybe ever. It was that big.

Cobra Verde opened with an interesting set that merged Stooges-Dolls thug rock with some nifty (Pere) Ubu-esque synth and theremin doodles. Given that Ubu and the Cobras both hail from Cleveland, I’m thinking that there must be something in the water there that makes people want to make noises like that. I’m also thinking that I might want to have a bottle of the stuff shipped my way accordingly.

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