Editiors note: This is a post by guest blogger, Doc (Scott) Lasser. Doc is the drummer for the band The 75’s and he and some friends traveled to Memphis last weekend to check out the Gories and Oblivians show at the HiTone. I asked him and Jason Potter of Left Arm (who also went) to blog about it for Lo-Fi Saint Louis. Honestly I wasn’t expecting something this long! but here it is! I almost feel like I should pay him for this. But I’m broke as a joke so I guess he’s shit out of luck.
I’m from Detroit, and have a great affinity for dirty, tired, old river towns. This probably explains why I took to St. Louis so easily, and why I like Memphis so much.
This weekend myself (avid garage rock fan and drummer for The 75s), Jeff “Kopper” Kopp (of KDHX’s “Wayback Machine” fame), Jason Potter (the drummer for local garage punk band Left Arm), Ryan Snowden (aka Ryan Katastrophe, a garagepunk.com podcaster from West county), and our friend Tom Quistorff (a local artist) drove down to Memphis to catch the reunion show for two much-beloved, and pretty much defunct garage bands: The Oblivians and The Gories.
A week before this show, I kind of looked at it as a typical rock n’ roll summer road trip: a bunch of hard core music fans giving up their weekend by driving 300 miles in ungodly heat, scarfing down crappy fast food at every stop, cooling down at the club with cheap beer, and eventually crashing in some dive hotel at 2:00 am. And while, yeah, it was all that, by the end of the trip I realized it was much more. It really was a pilgrimage to the place where the garage revival explosion of the 1990’s really started, to see maybe the two bands responsible for it all. Without The Gories there may have not been an Oblivians, and without The Oblivians, I doubt if the world would have ever heard of The White Stripes, The Hives, all the bands on Goner Records, and Hell, even Goner Records itself. I’d also throw Missouri’s own Cripplers into that group.
The trip began on Saturday afternoon, with Jason Potter serving as captain/Memphis tour guide. Jason was kind enough to drive the entire trip, a job which he genuinely seemed to enjoy. (To be fair, if The 75s has a kick ass band van like Jason/Left Arm does, we’d probably never stop touring.) It was, like, 150 degrees outside as we made our way through Missouri and Arkansas, but in Jason’s cavernous mini van that has an A/C unit that works better than the one in my house, everything was cool, literally.
Once you hit Arkansas, you are officially in “the South”. And there is kind of no mistaking it. The Stuckey’s start popping up like weeds, and the side of the highways are littered with the remains of front and back tires. We stopped off at a gas station in Blytheville, AR, which wikipedia tells me was once the residence of actor George Hamilton (!). It was at this little stop in Arkansas that we found a hat for sale that proclaimed any potential wearer as a member of “Jesus’ All-Star Team”. This of course made me wonder if Jesus wins their Home Run Hitting Derby every year…
A couple of hours later we hit Memphis, a town with a modest skyline, with a truly great landmark: a big glass pyramid. The Pyramid Arena was once home to the usually lowly NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, who the city stole from the basketball hotbed of Vancouver, British Columbia. The team moved into a new arena, and the Pyramid now stands without a permanent tenant. If that had happened in St. Louis, someone would have turned in to a parking structure or a Walgreen’s.
Now, before I say this, I want to refer readers to the first paragraph of this blog. I’m from Detroit, and I love dirty, tired, old river towns. With that fresh in your minds, I want to throw this out there: Memphis could very well be the Detroit of the south. Memphis is dirty, gritty, and a little crazy. There is garbage everywhere, bars on the windows and doors of what seems to be every other house, and no one seems to mind that people are walking around with open beers everywhere. There are a lot of abandoned buildings and maybe even more businesses. As for the proverbial southern charm… I think Memphians are more likely to tell you to go fuck yourself than provide the lost tourist with concise directions to Graceland. In short, Memphis is just fucking REAL. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a dirty, tired, old river town with a bit of an attitude. And like Detroit and St. Louis, it has something that a lot of other big cities in America just don’t have. Memphis, ladies and gentlemen, has SOUL. Slow smoked, dry rubbed, fall-off-the-bone SOUL.
So it was against this backdrop that we rolled on into Memphis, and made our way to our hotel, The Artisan. What the Artisan lacked in finesse it made up for in flavor. It turns out that we would be sharing the hotel with a large convention of gay black men. What was that like? I’ll refer you to the picture that Jason Potter took of Ryan Katastrophe that’s included with this blog. Please direct your eyes to the background of that photo…
We dumped our bags at the hotel, and made our way to find what came to be the unofficial second reason for this trip: barbecue. I’m a huge fan of Memphis BBQ, especially the dry rubbed stuff. Our plan was to head out to Payne’s, an iconic BBQ joint in Memphis, but they closed just after we made it into town. So, we went with Plan B and ate at The Bar-B-Q Shop. I had a chopped pork sandwich served on Texas toast, with a side of beans and some sweet tea to wash it down. After a 4 hour drive in the heat, it was close to heaven. Normally, I have an issue with a lot of the mustard-based sauces that seem to be a staple of southern BBQ; the pungent nature of mustard seems to overpower the smokiness that I think is the hallmark of really great BBQ sauces. But the sauce at Bar-B-Q Shop (which they call “Dancing Pigs”) was really subtle for being mustard-based, and still retained the bit of sweet and smokey flavor that I love. The pork was tender and juicy, and the crunchiness of Texas toast was a nice touch. The beans were sweet with hunks of pork mixed in. All in all, it was a pretty good representation of what Memphis BBQ is all about.
After dinner, we made our way to the club, The Hi-Tone Cafe. To put the place into perspective for St. Louisans, it’s like Off Broadway minus the balcony but with the vibe of the old Hi-Pointe. Now, The Oblivians (who are from Memphis) and The Gories played a show the night before ours, and we did read a few reviews of it online. The one thing everyone mentioned was how steamy the club was. That turned out to be the understatement of the century, which I’ll get to in a second.
Before too long, The Gories took the stage. This was really the treat of the night for me. The Gories are from Detroit, my hometown, and pretty much inspired every garage band to come out of Motown after them. Their stuff is raw, primal, and heavily rooted in the blues. I never got to see The Gories: I moved to California way before they formed, and never caught them in San Francisco. So this was a big deal for me. Mick Collins’ voice was shot, but he played his Strat like a mad man. Dan Kroha picked up the slack on the vocals, and the band did an instro number or two. Overall, I think their set was representative of their 6-year career. On a few songs, Collins and Kroha would pull away from the mic and let the crowd sing a line or two. The one thing that I had forgotten about the band was Peggy O’Neill’s drumming. She never really used a snare drum with The Gories, if ever. In place of a snare, she used a second floor tom. The cool thing about that is… The Gories are a trio with 2 guitars. The 2nd floor tom makes up for the lack of a bass and really adds to the primal nature of their sound. All of which was enhanced by the fact that The Hi-Tone has a great sound system with an engineer that knows what the Hell he is doing. All in all, The Gories turned in a great set, and it everything I had hoped for. And now that I think about it… What’s up with Detroit and minimalist, female garage rock drummers!?!
At this point, I should mention the, um, “weather conditions” inside the Hi-Tone. Everything was okay before the place started to fill up. But after The Gories’ set, which got people to jump up and down and heat the place up, the Hi-Tone effectively turned into a beer-soaked sauna. Seriously. I bet the humidity in the room was close to 90%. There is an A/C unit above the bar, and ceiling fans sporadically placed around the joint, but it didn’t seem help much. It will go down as the dirtiest, nastiest, and sweatiest show I have ever been to.
And here is where the story turns a bit tragic. I planted myself under one of the ceiling fans in between the Gories’ and Oblivians’ sets. It was nice when the room cleared out a bit (there is a beer garden out back of the club, complete with an industrial-sized fan to cool the masses down). I managed to plant myself under one of the ceiling fans, and it did cool me down a little. But by the time The Oblivians took the stage, the Hi-Tone turned into a rice steamer again. I only managed to last 4 songs into their set. I was sweating faster than I could drink water to replace it, and my knees started to buckle a little. I fought my way through the crowd to the beer garden, and happily sat next to the giant fan. Ryan Katastrophe was there; he bailed out a song before I did. I wanted to go back in after I cooled down some, but Ryan, who had gone in to use the bathroom at one point, came back after only 6-7 minutes, dripping sweat. Once again, he only used the bathroom, which is in the very back of the club.
I had to console myself by thinking that I had least saw The Oblivians play four songs, which is four more than much of the world is going to see them play for a while. They were really great. Loud, bluesy, and soulful with a hometown crowd throwing beer on them, with love, of course. We all talked about this on the way back home, but so much of the stuff that we love as garage rock fans stems from The Oblivians, it’s hard to imagine what things would have been like without them. During their 5-year run, they were the best, and pretty much proved that they still are.
For the rest of the set, I sat outside and bullshitted with Ryan and some people who had driven 12 hours with 10 other people from Austin, TX in a van with only two seats and no A/C. Ryan and I waited for our friends, and when the show was over, we headed back to our hotel. The disaster area that the Hi-Tone had turned into was a little hard to describe. It looked like a gas station bathroom had exploded and they put out the fire with Pabst.
Finally, we made it back to The Artisan at around 3 am. We were all so beat that the throngs of black gay guys throwing down shots of peach schnapps and smoking weed on our floor didn’t bother us.
We woke up just in time for check out. We went to another southern staple, Waffle House, for breakfast. For added charm, we drove a mile or so into Mississippi to eat there. I had two buttermilk waffles and a side of diced, chunked, and covered hash browns. And a sweet tea. I mean, what ELSE are you going to drink in the south!?!
The one last thing we did in Memphis was visit Goner Records over on Young Avenue. Goner, in addition to being a label started by Eric Friedl of The Oblivians, is also a great independent, vinyl-centric record store. While we were waiting for Goner to open, Greg Cartwright of The Oblivians walked up, coffee in hand. After playing back-to-back shows inside of a Crock Pot, Cartwright looked every bit as haggard as you would expect. He commented that “next time I decide to put one of things together, it’s going to be in December…” Goner is a fun place to shop. They have a lot of old Sun and Stax 45s in stock, and a listening station with a turntable and headphones. I picked up a Gories CD and a Carbonas CD. Kopper, Jason, and Ryan bought a lot of vinyl. Ryan also bought a G.G. Allin bobblehead. Try finding one of those at Wal-Mart, kiddies!
And that was it. After we left Goner we hit the highway and headed home. I doubt that I’ll ever get the opportunity to see a show like that again, or ever take a trip like this one again. It’s kind of hard to roll up a convention of gay black men, great BBQ, a legendary garage rock show, and oppressive heat into one big travel package.