The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is headed to the Bug Jar
10:09 AM, Jul 11, 2013
If you go
What: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with catl and The Ginger Faye Bakers.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Bug Jar, 219 Monroe Ave.
Admission: $13 in advance; $15 the day of the show ($17 for ages 18 to 20) at bugjar.com.
This is the familiar the story of a boy and rock and roll. “I’m from the Midwest, I grew up in Wisconsin, and there was nothing going on there, so I just came to New York,” says Judah Bauer.
He was 15 years old and a big fan of the band Pussy Galore. He decided he needed to find a guy like its frontman, Jon Spencer, and start his own band.
But Bauer did more than find a guy like Spencer. He found the real thing. And they did start a band, with drummer Russell Simins: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. “It was destiny, in a way,” Bauer says. “Even when I’ve tried to get away from it, it’ll come back. Even when the damage was piling up and I needed to stop for a while.”
Now look at Bauer, some two decades after he first pursued destiny. Last week the guitarist and the band were touring Italy. “Free cognac for breakfast, free cognac everywhere you go,” he says. This Sunday, they’re at the Bug Jar, where the cognac isn’t free, but that’s no matter to Bauer. “Nah, I don’t drink that (rock-star expletive deleted) anyway,” he says.
Bauer portrays himself as a basic guy, perhaps one who once had a bright future as a drywall contractor, had he stayed in Wisconsin. That’s what the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion does. Not drywalling, but rock in a basic, primitive, raw and exciting way. James Brown is an influence. As are blues guys like Mississippi Fred McDowell. And Spencer himself works in a little Elvis Presley persona as well. The younger, edgier, more-dangerous Presley that we might have had if Vegas and all of those ridiculous movies hadn’t happened.
Does the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion borrow too much to be considered authentic? No, no more than any bluesman borrowed from Robert Johnson. “That’s kind of basic parts of the band to me,” Bauer says.
The late R.L. Burnside was a big, basic part. Electrified, porch-stomping, lascivious lyrics. “R.L., originally we were just fans of his records,” Bauer says. “We used to listen to them in the van. So we called him to see if they wanted to go on road. I think they said no at first.”
But soon enough, Burnside and his band agreed to leave familiar territory and hit the road with the Blues Explosion. “They’re in their own world out there, the first couple of days they were a little weirded out,” Bauer says. “They were used to playing blues festivals and juke joints. They weren’t used to the yelling, rocking scene, and pierced noses. But musically, they were as exciting as you could get. We took him all over the world.
“We’ve played a lot of beautiful places,” Bauer says. “Monasteries, plazas in ancient Roman ruins, mansions and castles. I never appreciated that stuff. I don’t know if I do now, seeing wonders I should be impressed by.”
One piece of that world was a club in Los Angeles. “R.L. asked, ‘How many of you people believe in the Lord?’ One guy raised his hand in the whole place. So he plays ‘You Gotta Move,’ and the hair was standing on the back of my neck.
“He never played it again. I asked him a few times, ‘R.L., can you do ‘You Gotta Move’ tonight?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, I believe we can play that.’ But he didn’t. I think he didn’t believe in playing church songs in clubs.
“There’s so much energy coming off of him. R.L., Solomon Burke, who I also got to play with, so much charisma and energy on some level, you just respond to it, they make you a better player.”
Likewise, the Blues Explosion has a reputation for high-energy shows. “We’ve got high energy,” Bauer says. “But those guys, they just have the humanity, the authority, to pull it off.”
There have been gaps in the Blues Explosion’s two decades. Its most recent album, Meat + Bone, is its first in eight years. “The band never broke up, it was time to just take a break, there was no falling out,” Bauer says. “This band has a tendency to maybe work too hard, run itself into the ground. There’s a burnout factor.”
They responded by working. “Jon was working on the reissues of all the old albums, that was kind of a trip,” Bauer says. “Listening to a lot of records, a lot of outtakes, listening to all of this stuff we did. It was kind of a reminder that we were an art-punk band that sometimes became a rock band. But, we kind of forgot about that.”
Bauer and Simins even turned up on Late Night With David Letterman, backing Tom Waits. “I don’t know if I passed the test, in his non-linear way,” Bauer says. “Maybe I was a little too straight for him. I think he’d just heard some African guitarist, so Waits was saying, ‘Play it like a blade of grass,’ like I was supposed to make my guitar sound like I was blowing on a blade of grass.
“Thirty seconds before we were gonna walk onstage, he says to us, ‘Don’t play any high notes. I only respond to low notes.’ I’m going to start re-thinking my arrangement while strapping on my guitar for national television?”
When the cacophony ends, Bauer retreats to his Manhattan apartment, where he claims he faces few distractions. “I’m done accumulating things, to fill the emptiness inside,” he says. “When I get home, I catch up on all the stuff that’s backlogged. Bills, laundry, getting amps and guitars fixed. Every day there’s 40 emails, people asking me, ‘We need to know where you’re gonna be seven months from now.’ It’s easy to say yes when it’s a year away.
“You ever seen that movie Repulsion?’ ” he says. That’s the 1965 Roman Polanski classic. “That’s me, in that apartment, and there’s a dead body in there but she doesn’t notice it. That’s what I’m like. I’m Catherine Deneuve, except I don’t have the dress.”