Wednesday, September 02, 2009

It’s Gonna Be Alright: The Joey Skidmore Show Comes To Town

I have many reasons to recommend Joey Skidmore’s set Saturday night (September 5th) at the Record Bar. But the one that stands out is the hardest to describe.

For almost two decades, I’ve been trying to figure out what happened that first time I saw Joey Skidmore at Kansas City’s cornerstone blues bar the Grand Emporium. If I saw him before that show (because I do feel I was familiar with him), nothing quite prepared me for that night.

Why? That’s the part I’m grasping for…. Crucial to it was his full on commitment to the stage. Skidmore tends to wear eye-liner with his shaggy dog haircut, and we were just barely into the nineties, so it feels like there might have been spandex involved. (At least back in the day, Skidmore could look like he shared a closet with Little Steven Van Zandt. He certainly embodies the garage commitment Little Steven has come to represent.)

But dress is only dress. What matters is how the performer fills the clothes. Joey Skidmore and his crack band, featuring the wonderful Mike Costelow on lead guitar, transported those paying attention—and it felt like the whole house was paying attention—to a sideshow world of possibility, something magical and mysterious in a way that would make sense to both Ray Bradbury and David Lynch. By the end of the show, the world felt upside down—all the melodrama of that hard-rocking gothic psychedelia became the only reality that mattered.

I don’t think I’ve ever written about Skidmore without citing the carnival. His new album shows his taste for the freak show has hardly abated over the years—whether it’s covering Captain Beefheart’s psycho swamp rocker, “Clear Spot,” or speculating about the bodies in the nightmare run of “the guy in the white jeep” or engaging in a Halloween-ready cover of Buck Naked and the Bare Bottom Boys’ “Teenage Pussy from Outer Space.”

The most disturbing Goth on the record, though, is the title cut, “Ventriloquist Doll.” It’s a lonely post break-up song about a guy, like Anthony Hopkins in Magic, who’s got more of a relationship with his puppet than anyone in the outside world. As if acknowledging the absurdity of the scenario, Skidmore winks by ending each refrain with “he’s only 24 inches tall.” Still, that takes none of the edge off the weirdness.

“Don’t open up the curtains/You’ll let the darkness out,” Skidmore cries against a backdrop of tremolo guitar supplied by the great Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and a ghost of soothing acoustic guitar from the late underground legend Nikki Sudden. In other words, the song is musically earnest as hell--despite the absurdity. And the more I hear it, I can’t help but think about the tension between the persona of Joey Skidmore the performer and the humanity of Joey Skidmore the artist, and the concept of being alone with his ventriloquist doll becomes frighteningly real. (Not just his—there’s no distancing yourself from that one—we all have a persona, and we all have a reality. From time to time, they tend to collide…or worse…intermingle in ways we don’t really want.)

Of course, Joey Skidmore’s fundamental talents lend him a persona somewhat beyond his control. His CD Baby site compares his music to the Stones for its stripped down funky quality, but more telling are the comparisons to Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, and the “Mood” label for his music is “Weird.” What that means, really, is that he has a baritone that lends itself to camp in a manner embraced by Pop and Dolls lead singer Johansen, and Skidmore indulges that as well (obvious from the titles mentioned above).

But in a world of whiners and screamers and mumblers who are considered hip and cutting edge, it is worth noting that Skidmore actually has a beautiful voice. His bass baritone (somewhat deeper than Pop’s, maybe not Johansen) is as richly elegant as Ambel’s tremolo and Julia Thro’s shimmering lead on "Ventriloquist Doll." And he has a surprising range, which can reach a couple of octaves higher, on the next song “Crow Tree,” for the counterpoint to Morrells’ drummer Ron Gremp's tom tom-like drums and Mike Costelow’s prowling bass.

That song was produced by Sudden, so the basic track was finished before his death. But the next song, “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” written by Sudden, was recorded after his death. In just the way the song needs it to be, it’s exciting and affirming to hear Skidmore sing in his upper register in a way that calls to mind the Swell Maps/Jacobites singer. It’s a fun, rollicking song, with wonderful Hammond B3 organ supplied by Morrells’/Skeletons’ keyboardist Joe Terry.

Despite the death that haunts this record (Sudden died while it was being recorded and Skidmore dedicates it to 7 friends he lost in the two years before it was recorded, including KC’s Ron Rooks and Springfield’s Bill Brown), this song looks the darkness dead in the eye and finds a way to smile. The refrain, “it’s gonna be alright/each and every night” insists on its truth. It works in part because it's by Sudden, who inexplicably lost his own brother years before. And it works because Skidmore sings it having lost his collaborator. It works by recognizing it’s not going to be near right for those of us left behind ever again. Somehow, that contradiction stands and finds its own joy. That strikes me as a Nikki Sudden thing, but no doubt it's a place where Sudden and Skidmore meet.

Sudden’s spirit certainly runs throughout this record. The opening cut, “Pistol in My Pocket,” was co-written by Skidmore and Sudden in Berlin, and they recorded it and the title track outside of London in 2003. With lines like “lost all my money, but at least I spent your advance,” “Pistol” is mythic fun from beginning to end—taken over the top by a final guitar battle between Costelow and Ambel, Terry banging away on the piano in the background. It’s the kind of explosive fun that might close a lesser album, but it sets the mark high for what comes after—and the record, generally produced by the one and only Lou Whitney (Morrells/Skeletons), refuses to disappoint.

In fact, one of my favorite songs is the penultimate, “Wicked Witch,” a sassy celebration of Condoleezza Rice (the record came out in early 2008). Sudden also planned to contribute to the writing of this one. Skidmore e-mailed him the chorus a couple of weeks before Sudden died. The song certainly suggests Sudden’s influence. And its power doesn’t depend on the Bush administration either—the chorus “wicked, wicked, wicked witch of the West” puts the emphasis on the West over and above the witch. The exuberant interplay between guitar and piano at the end of this record brings everything home even before what feels to me like the encore, a high energy live cover of the Who’s “The Good’s Gone.”

That live tease is another reason to go see Saturday’s show, but more fundamental is the chance to hear all of these songs live. Mike Costelow is off on the road with the Jon Joiner Band, but one of Kansas City’s best lead guitarists, Gary Paredes (of the Titanics), has taken his place. Longtime Skidmore bass player Cory Corbino will shore up the rhythm section with the band’s new drummer Don Cleveland.

In today’s fragmented musical universe, Skidmore’s steadfast commitment to his ethos seems all the more remarkable. The promise is there in “Crow Tree,” the psychedelic slow burn he co-produced with Nikki Sudden and Lou Whitney. Part of the Joey Skidmore Band lore is that a murder of crows filled a tree outside their first jam session; I’d like to think that’s what the song’s about on some level. With that in mind, the song promises, “just past the crow tree….you’ll get a surprise.” Joey Skidmore's record suggests that's an understatement.