Joe Jack Talcum came to town and played at Ports o’ Call. The Dead Milkmen were my favorite band for about fifteen minutes in eighth grade, and I didn’t pass on a chance to see a stripped-down set by their lead singer at my buddy’s house.
Talcum rolled up to West Covina as part of the misnamed Huge Bicycle Tour, three older dudes touring together in a big maroon van. They reminded me of the guys in that John Travolta/Martin Lawrence flick Wild Hogs, except they had songs instead of motorcycles. One of Talcum’s tour mates, the Bassturd, dropped a set that mixed clever hip-hop with miserably boring covers of songs by Devo and Ween. He did a dead-on version of “Blockhead,” but I failed to see the point.
Far more exciting than the Bassturd was Lord Grunge, who took the bedroom by storm with some serious theatrics. A big dude with biker style, he was like a cross between Andrew W.K. and John Goodman’s character in True Stories. After he sang along to his first track, he looked out at the flabbergasted kids in attendance: “I felt like I was your dad and I was at a party and I found PCP and I was like ‘hey kids, what’s up?’” It was a good observation- his performance was basically exactly like that. It was awesome.
The Huge Bicyle Tour guys didn’t play separate sets. They alternated, playing songs one at a time with no apparent order.
Talcum took the most turns. Watching him, I remembered buying his CD at the Camelot Music in my local mall when I was around thirteen. Then, anybody in a band seemed really impressive and distant. It was odd to see this guy drop a set heavy with Dead Milkmen covers to a bedroom audience of about thirty people—especially these thirty people. Half of them apparently came for him, but the other half were Ports O’ Call regulars who didn’t have a clue he even existed until he started playing in front of them.
Talcum was good, if unspectacular. He exhibited showmanship and emitted the glow of a seasoned performer. A greying ex-punker, he aped Jonathan Richman a bit and at times was what I imagine Billy Bragg would’ve been like if he’d wanted to write joke songs instead of anthems for the working class. The Dead Milkmen songs, particularly a version of “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies” that had an drum track played on an iPod, were actually better as solo acoustic jams.
He ended with “Punk Rock Girl” after being prodded by his fans, although he was vocal about being tired of playing it for people. I get where he’s coming from, but he shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth—without the success of that song, Talcum would have been standing in front of a crowd composed entirely of fifteen twenty year-olds with sleepy looks on their faces.
After Talcum and Friends came the local acts, starting with LACO$TE member Cole Miller’s solo project Human Hands. Cole stood very still as he started with a keyboard drone that he slowly rolled up into a drawn-out phaser blast that reminded me of the time I inhaled a bunch of ether fumes and convinced myself that I was related to God. The music threw off my mental clock, but I think it ended after about seven minutes. Good job, Cole. Noise can be pretty incredible, but brevity is essential.
I used to be ambivalent to the music of barbaric yawper Chris Payne, who goes by the stage name Whitman. I’ve changed my mind on him over the past few months, though, as his performances have become ever more accomplished and musical. Tonight he closed the bill and was absolutely great.
Whitman is still obsessed with blood, sadness, and dreams. He still has rage, apparently. But he has jettisoned the wanton explosiveness of his earlier performances for an approach that is more “simmering” than “boiling over.” Subtlety makes all the difference. Employing liberal amounts of feedback and making gorgeous use of pal Rich Seymour’s disconcerting cello playing, the dude has found the perfect sonic space for his blunt, atonal folk. He stood on his bare tip-toes for the entirety of the show on Thursday, focusing his eyes on the wall in front of him like a war-fixated youth in a Stephen Crane novel.
Before his final song, he laid on the ground and chuckled that “It’s hard sometimes- sharing these feelings with everyone. Look at Vic Chesnutt.” He then proceeded to strum open chords as Rich dropped his bow and turned his instrument into a dopey coffee shop bass. It was all very humorous. Chris sings about uncomfortable stuff, but he is remarkably comfortable in his own skin.