There are many incarnations of punk rock music with various names such as hardcore, surf punk, death punk, classic punk and so many more that it would take me ages to list them all. There is, however, one incarnation that I have always found to be a perfect fit to the southern U.S. state of Texas where country music, blues and rock & roll have always survived every single influx of new music that has been thrown at it. Ask anyone in Texas who Alicia Bridges is and they would most likely not have a clue (and would look at you very uncomfortably after you tell them who she is) but if you say the name Johnny Cash… well, you just made a friend. This incarnation that I am talking about mixes the old southern rockabilly of the 1950’s with the raw energy and power of punk rock (and b-movie horror, for some reason I just cannot understand but still think is kinda cool) into what is known as Psychobilly.
Psychobilly is not a new thing, honestly speaking. It’s been around for many decades. The official story is that the style begins in England in the early 80’s with The Meteors but I beg to differ. Anyone who knows anything about rockabilly and punk, knows about California’s The Cramps who even as far back as 1976 were already pumping out Dwayne Eddy influenced tunes spiced with an unhealthy dose of crazy guitars, zombies and attitude… but again… I digress.
The very fact that this style of music has survived this long would be amazing by itself but what makes it even more amazing is that there are new bands all over the world who are still performing the genre and writing new songs that adhere faithfully to the original style while also bringing in just a little bit of something else to make them unique.
BFE Rock Club in north west Houston hosted a Psychobilly filled night last Friday evening with three bands. Austrian band, Kitty in a Casket came to Houston on the last night of their U.S. tour along with Texas bands, The Beat Dolls and Just Another Monster. There were supposed to be another two acts opening the event but for some reason or other, they didn’t make it which meant that the music would start a bit later. Not one to worry about such things, I found a table and ordered a cold one.
Nearing 10:00 pm, The Beat Dolls started to walk onto the stage.
The Beat Dolls are Angie Munsey on vocals and guitar, Barry Anderson on bass and Mike Reisch on the drums. This was my second time seeing them perform and just like the last time I saw them, I was blown away. Angie stands on stage with the classic pinup-girl look that characterizes the Psychobilly style and armed to the teeth with one hell of a dark sense of humor and what I believe is a hollow body Ibanez Artcore AM-Series on which she turns out face-melting power chords with a solid distortion that you would never expect to hear from a hollow body guitar. Her voice matches her style perfectly as she sings songs about tying up men and keeping them locked in her basement so they will have the time to learn to love her. She is the girl at the local diner who pulls the pen out of her hair to take your order of coffee and over-easy eggs at 3 in the morning while chewing gum loudly and calling you “honey”. She personifies this character so well on stage (complete with the deep southern twang in her accent as she talks to the delighted crowd) that I half expected her to have her RV trailer parked out front of the club with a fridge full of Schlitz beer. In reality, Angie is an amazing performer who takes to her craft very seriously but at the same time has a great deal of fun doing it. She is extremely entertaining and envelops you with her banter and attitude very easily. Barry is a no nonsense bassist who manages to play complicated scales and bass rolls without so much as breaking a sweat. He stands on the side of the stage, rarely interacting with the audience and putting out a barrage of deep, clean bass notes that fall perfectly in line with Mike’s heart pumping kick drum and cracking snare.
I cannot stress enough how good this band is and how much fun they are to see. They blazed through an awesome set of 3 chord tunes that had the crowd jumping and screaming. Towards the end of their show, they performed a beautifully sculpted punk version of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” and to me, that defined the essence of who they are as a band. True to roots rockabilly with a damn loud guitar and a love for mischief.
Following The Beat Dolls were Just Another Monster from Dallas.
Singer Alex Murder, guitarist Blake Starr, bassist Stitch Nicholas and drummer Twitch Addams (in allusion to the Addams family, I presume) make up this quartet of “horror movie meets rock and roll” madness. The closest thing I can pin on them would be bands like The Misfits and maybe The Murder Dolls when they are not being so metal. Don’t get me wrong… these guys are very metal but they lacked that punchy distortion that characterizes those nu-metal bands and instead seem to favor more the kind of distortion used by bands like The Damned which in my opinion suits them very well.
This band completely destroys any of the usual artist-audience barriers that are common in live productions by focusing the entirety of their show onto the crowd. They are energetic, bombastic and in your face at every moment of their performance, making the audience members become a part of the show. Alex performed most of the show, either standing at the very lip of the stage or down on the floor with the rest of the audience members. He connects with the crowd very well and gives them the visual show they came to see. However, where his stage performance was spot on, his voice was not. Now, I get it… this is a horror punk band and I should not expect the vocal styling of Freddie Mercury, but come on man… Maybe I caught them on a bad night and Alex was celebrating a little too much before the last show of the tour but that strikes at the heart of a pet peeve of mine that I will elaborate on later. Guitarist Blake plays fast and loud chords out of a Reverend Double Agent guitar while jumping all over the stage with the energy and zeal of a skateboarder who has just found an empty pool. I was very impressed with his strumming speed (at one point I think he was strumming out full chords in 64th notes!) and the accuracy and cleanliness at its execution. Bassist Stitch is a guy who you can tell, embodies everything rock and roll and wears it fully as a skin. His look reminds me of some of my favorite horror bands of the past like Alien Sex Fiend and Specimen. He punches out thick bass notes through a distortion pedal, creating a powerful sound that would make Cliff Burton proud. With complete abandon he projects himself outward to the audience who receives him openly and with admiration for his art and talent. Twitch sits behind the drum kit playing fast and loud but in many instances he was just not able to keep up with the music, fumbling with the tempo and losing his place in songs which brings me back to the dreaded pet peeve…
Being in a band is a lot of fun. You get to party, have a good time and hang out all night with a bunch of cool people who believe in your art and want to watch you perform. However, like any other thing in life, if somebody is paying money to see you, it is your job (yes, I used the word “job”) to respect your audience and their hard-earned money that they are forfeiting to you and give them the best experience you can. This has nothing to do with the style of music you play or even the complexity of your compositions. It has to do with your dedication to your art form and wanting to leave a mark on the people who have come to hear and see you. Of course, an artist is a human being too and can have bad nights but there is a difference between a bad night and a lack of commitment to being the best at what you do, regardless of what it is you actually do. I honestly think that Just Another Monster has all the ingredients necessary to be a great, notable band. The energy, the presence and the talent are all there. I just wish I had seen some more commitment in execution and artistry from a couple of its members.
Finally, it came time for the last act of the night, Kitty in a Casket.
This is a fun band indeed. Hailing from Vienna, Austria, Kitty in a Casket are part of a very large Psychobilly scene in Europe that include such awesome bands as The Silver Shine from Hungary and The Wolfgangs from France. They very accurately describe their style as “punk a little billy” given that although they do incorporate some rockabilly in their music, the sound that I believe describes them most is more in line with the pop-punk sounds of acts like early Avril Lavigne and even a little bit of Paramore. Singer Kitty Casket has a voice made for pop music which provides a very interesting contrast to the heavier music that the band plays. It is a very polished and well trained voice that emphasizes on the high notes and scale patterns more suitable to a Taylor Swift song than a punk band. Normally, this would sound a bit weird but somehow she is able to pull it off convincingly. She has boundless energy on stage and looks audience members straight in the eye as she sings directly to them. You can see she is having fun and loves doing what she does. Bassist Marc Maniac is very well suited to his moniker, violently and brilliantly slapping a giant double bass that he lifts over his head triumphantly after each song. He is completely engrossed in his flawless performance while also interacting with other band members on stage flashing a huge smile at all times. On either end of the stage are guitarists Todd Flash and Billy the Bat who dole out truckloads of energy and distortion through very loud Gibson and LTD guitars while screaming out the required millennial whoops that serve as chorus to the fast paced songs. Both guitarists are superb musicians and carry their side of the stage with confidence and passion. Drummer Max van Angst pounds out beats of pure adrenalized rock and roll without missing a beat. Wearing what has to be the weirdest winter hat in this blistering Texas heat, he is fast and dead-on target as he beats the crap out of the drum set.
Their show is full of energy from start to finish. I can easily see this band performing on a stadium stage and not losing a single audience member in the process. Although at times it is noticeable that some of their stage movements are choreographed, they are still able to make it look fresh and spontaneous to the screaming and dancing crowd who take to this band like bees to honey. Every member of this band is aware of the audience and performs to them with a purpose and even though it would seem impossible to do, singer Kitty is at the top of the pyramid, leading the show like a preacher who has gained her followers’ total devotion. She is a star.
As a photographer and musician I have to say that of all the live music venues in this city, BFE Rock Club is the absolute best for seeing or performing a show. Yes, it’s far away from the center of the city but this place has dedicated itself to being a live music venue and has wasted no effort or skimped in any way to provide the absolute best stage, sound and lighting possible. The bands sound even better than in some of the mayor performance venues in this city. The sound engineers take great care in making sure the music is clear and in perfect balance. In terms of lighting, BFE has a perfect set up of real tungsten fresnel lights. Not those horrible and cheap LED lights that more and more venues are starting to use. The tungsten lights provide a warmth and a glow that is unique to them and which cannot be replicated with those god-awful LED’s. Rock and roll concerts are characterized by this warmth. To top things off, there are four tungsten fresnels facing the stage with (you guessed it) white light. These are pointed at the artists so they are properly lit from the front, allowing the audience to see every facial expression the artist makes during their performance. Finally, the stage is 5 feet off the ground with a drum riser of about two feet. It is huge and sturdy with two ample side entrances that provide easy access for the artist and their gear. When you see a band performing on the BFE stage, you are seeing magic happening right before your very eyes. Other live music venues should look to BFE to learn how to set up a stage properly. We would all benefit from it. Including the venue.
So all in all, I had a very good night watching The Beat Dolls, Just Another Monster and Kitty in a Casket. Some parts of the evening could have been much better but even those things were obscured by the great stage performances I witnessed from all three bands. Psychobilly music is alive and well in Texas and I sincerely believe it fits in perfectly with that southern rebel punk vibe we love so much in this state. I believe that if Johnny Cash were alive today, that’s what he’d be playing, for damn sure!
See you all at the next show!