by Dan Williams
Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Weird Al, Haight-Ashbury, Bubblegum, Jell-O, Black Ballerinas and Frank Zappa collided at Union Transfer on Tuesday night.
After a psychedelic, swirling wall of sound opening performance by Jack Name (more later), Ariel Pink and Haunted Graffiti casually took the stage. Fans waiting in 28 degree chill for the doors to open were excited for the show, but most early arrivals admitted they knew little about the artist. They were there because friends had convinced them they needed to see/hear this show. The passionate fans, some going back to 2002, arrived midway through the opener to pack the room.
The “seeing” part was evident as the headliner awkwardly walked to the front of the stage sporting studded high heeled platform shoes on his feet and a Pebbles Flintstone topknot in his blonde hair (somewhat sedate for the flamboyant performer). He slapped hands with a few front row fans and then shuffled to the center stage mic to announce the first song from his new album, White Freckles.
Some have referred to his music as low-fi, others as Experimental, Indie and any number of other descriptors. I find his tunes and delivery to be eclectic, tongue in cheek with genre nods to decades past like Surf, Classic Rock, Post-Punk and New Age. While some may dismiss him as a novelty act with his fun, but childish homage to Jell-O and prerecorded Saturday morning cartoon sound effects, I see him as an extremely bright student of genres old and new.
The melodies and instrumentation of “Nude Beach A Go-Go” and “One Summer Night” could easily fit in silly 60’s surf movies like Beach Blanket Bingo. While the melodies are spot on, Zappa influences are ever present in the irreverent lyrics and his vocal delivery:
“That’s where all the nude kids cut their teeth
There’s no clothes to wear
And no bow ties never aired
And chiffon and silk and wool and cotton
They are all forgotten
Nude beach a go-go
Nude beach a go-go”
“Goth Bomb” showcases the band with a Psychedelic / Punk feel featuring heavy drums and screaming guitar, sounding eerily like a long lost B52’s cut. Ariel’s vocals move between Fred Schneider and the trademark high pitched smarmy treatment Zappa would use on songs like “Valley Girl”.
While most songs were performed with great style by the band, there were occasional prerecorded sounds and voices to add a theatrical feel. A menacing female voice bantered with Ariel from the sky during “Black Ballerina”.
“Oh okay Billy, come over here a minute (uh, okay)
I gotta introduce you to one of me friends (uhh, really?)
I think you’re gonna like her Billy
(Ohh, she’s a girl? Uhh I don’t know about this)
Yes, she’s a topless dancer, lad (what?)
C’mon now, don’t be frightened”
To pack a venue like Union Transfer on a cold Tuesday night says a lot about any artist. These folks, many of them made up in colorful clothes and makeup came to bond with this quirky musical shape shifter. Is he a genius or is he putting us on? I think it may be both.
Occasional Ariel Pink collaborator Jack Name opened the show with an atmospheric soundscape of electronic and analog instruments. Name (guitar and vocals) was joined by two seated musicians in a spare setting. Facing each other like silent minions, they played electronic drum pads, bass drum, keyboards and a host of electronic gadgets laying the foundation for Name. Oftentimes his vocals blended with the instrumentation and were unintelligible. Rather than being a problem, the sounds blended into a soup that was different, new-age and in a way, soothing.