Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in Toronto – a review

August 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm (Uncategorized)

When you have an explosion, I mean a real explosion, not some CGI effects explosion, I mean a real explosion, things get blown apart. Into little tiny pieces sometimes. But, as the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin once said, “the passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” And so it was  on Saturday night, I went to see the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at Lee’s Palace.

Lee’s Palace is an iffy proposition. True, it’s a small club, and the sight lines are good. The sound is pretty good too. However, if the place doesn’t fill, it feels like you’re in a cave. Luckily there was no such problem last night.

Opening for the blues Explosion were  CatL., one of my favourite local bands. CatL are a three-piece featuring  CatL on guitar and vocals, John LaRue on drums, and Sara K on organ,  percussion and vocals. The band has released two albums, but you need to see them live.

CatL took the stage at 10:15 and opened with “Oh Death” my favourite song from their second album With the Lord for cowards You will find no place,  then launched into “Hey Hey” from their first  ¿Adónde vas? A ningún lado. The music draws from many sources including blues, punk, garage and blends it into a exciting mix.

Throughout the set, CatL built momentum, but unfortunately they were on a strict schedule as the Blue Explosion had to perform at the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal  today with a sound check at 3PM, so there was no time for a well-deserved encore. 

CatL are playing at Kitchener’s Hillside festival next weekend, and then back to their regular hangout the Drake Dakota Tavern. Many people took Sarah’s advice and picked up CD from the merch table after the show.   

But before we begin, let’s examine the controversy with Jim DeRogatis. Reviewing the Pitchfork Music festival in Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times music columnist DeRogatis wrote that the Blues Explosion were essentially a “blackface parody.” (You can read the original Pitchfork review here, DeRogati’s column which attempts to explain his comment and the interview in Toronto’s  Eye Weekly where Spencer responds)

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and DeRogatis is usually worth reading (He wrote a pretty good biography of Lester Bangs Let It Blurt), but here he way far off- base. First, the blackface parody has rather unpleasant undertones of racism. Second, cultural appropriation has dogged pretty much every white performer who has expressed admiration for predominately African-American music – the same charge could be levelled (and often has been)  the White Stripes and Eminem, even back to the Rolling Stones and Elvis. For me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. How anyone can make this charge after seeing the Blues explosion live is beyond me.

The Blues Explosion play stripped back to basics rock n roll. There’s not a lot of frills. During one song, Spencer interrupts to inform us, drummer Russell Simmons is “freaking him out.” Simmons,   Spencer proclaims is at level 14 while the rest of us are at maybe level 7.  It’s clear he’s key to holding it all together. Guitarist Judah Bauer stands silent, smiling turning out incredible sounds.  Spencer  is the draw. He never stands still. He’s always in motion. Be it jumping, bouncing, playing guitar, therimin or even playing to the crowd, it’s clear he loves what he is doing , and we love them for it.  

There’s no building of momentum at a Blues Explosion show. The band starts at 11 and stays there. The band played an hour-long set, then returned for almost thirty minutes of encores. In the course of the show, the band tore through many favourites including “Afro”, “Blues X  Man”, 2Kindsa love”, “Calvin”, “Chicken Dog” , “Fuck Shit Up”, “Mars, Arizona”, and of course “Bellbottoms.” Given the energy on stage, it has sometimes been difficult to capture it on record, although 2007’s singles collection Jukebox Explosion  comes close.

Before the show, I picked up a copy of the newly re-released Blues Explosion live album, Controversial Negro. The album is from a show in Tuscon, Arizona in 1996. It was a great soundtrack for the drive home. It’s not quite the same as a live show, but if you missed the show it’s not a bad place to start.



  1. Jackie Morden said,

    Again, a review that makes me wish I’d been there. I forget sometimes, how it feels to see a really good show, one that gets your adreneline pumping, gets even the most shy soul hopping up and down, and singing along,(albeit quietly). But reading this brings it all back. Music is a passion and you have to feed it.

    Great review. Would love to see this band.


    • fischerzed said,

      A good show is one of those sublime moments isn’t it? I’ve been listening to the Avengers today in preparation for tonight’s show, and they had some fairly amazing songs. A band called Teenage X, from Toronto are opening. Stay tuned for a review tomorrow.

  2. Paul said,

    Bring on the “blackface parody”! or, you could try “whiteface” like Dylan did in the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour!

    I’m afraid I can’t wrap my head around catL though. They seem to be this local “buzz” band, but the c.d. sounds awful.(like cats being tortured!) Granted I should make an effort to see them live.

    • fischerzed said,

      I live in hope, I may bring you to the Church of CatL and save your soul.

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