Concert Review: Jello Biafra at the Clubhouse Music Venue

Categories: Concert Review
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Benjamin Leatherman
Jello Biafra postures and poses at the Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe. See more shots in our slideshow of the concert.
What do punk icon Jello Biafra and B-52s singer Fred Schneider have in common? Prior to last night, I thought it was only a shared a penchant for nasally singing voices and theatrical stage performances. But after watching the former Dead Kennedys singer front his newest band (a.k.a. The Guantanamo School of Medicine) share another mutual distinction: Both of their acts kinda blew when I finally got to see them in person.  

I've been a fan of the DKs for going on two decades now, with my first taste of Jello coming back in 1992 when a good friend of mine (the cat who introduced me to punk rock and other cool music) loaned me a copy of Frankenchrist. After wearing out said cassette tape, I began a hardcore love affair with the band. I've got every Dead Kennedys album committed to memory. I've had arguments with others about how their music is still relevant today. And I even sided with Biafra when it came to his feud with his ex-bandmates (excluding the fact I attended their ill-advised "reunion tour" when it hit Tempe).

Other than catching his spoken word gigs the last two times he came through the Valley, I'd never seen Jello perform as a singer (other than through bootleg videos or on YouTube). In some ways, I'd been waiting more than 17 years for last night's show, which probably why it felt like such a letdown.

As I mentioned in my preview of the concert from this week's issue, the Guantanamo School of Medicine are the closest in both spirit and sound to that of the Dead Kennedys. Guitarist Ralph Sight and bassist Billy Gould seem to channel the spirits of East Bay Ray and Klaus Flouride without mimicking them. In fact, their efforts were one of the best parts of the show.

But watching Jello go through the same hyperactive pantomime show that he did during Bay Area gigs in the late-70s/early-80s left me with the same kind of "meh" reaction that I felt when I finally saw Schneider and the B52s for the first time last month at Fall Frenzy. Biafra is pretty spry for a 51-year-old with a paunch and a bum leg and the crowd of around 250 strong ate most of his act up with a spoon.

Well, during a few certain songs at any rate. The 70-minute-plus set included a majority of the songs from TGSOM's album The Audacity of Hype, but other than the hard-charging "Electronic Plantation," the punks and crusties in attendance only came unglued during the four DKs songs they performed, including an updated version of "California Uber Alles," and "Let's Lynch the Landlord."

The pit was fucking fierce with plenty of stage diving and punches being thrown. One skinny gutter punk almost took my head off with a stage dive. While being on the receiving end of a Superfly Splash wasn't that bad (and I'm sure my spine will knit in time), it brought to mind a Biafra quote from a 1985 performance at D.C.'s 9:30 Club.

"Maybe if you're gonna jump off the stage you shouldn't jump on somebody's head to get there. Did that ever occur to you? This isn't football"

While Jello (circa 1985) might've taken umbrage at some of the dancefloor assaults being carried out in the pit, the 2009 version seemed to be more interested in spewing out his political polemic in between songs. Topics included the current president (who he's dubbed "The Barack Star") and his supposed impotence when it came to affecting change, as well his usual targets of the religious right, the upper class, the WTO, et al.

Same old shtick, different year. Except that Jello's sarcasm-filled screamings just don't pack the bite they used to. While "Electronic Plantation" is certainly a powerful song depicting the horrors of being shackled to you cubicle in front of a PC all day, it certainly ain't no "Soup is Good Food."

(He even got in plenty of digs on Sheriff Joe Arpaio which felt like the socio-political equivalent of the oft-used concert shout-out "I hear Phoenix likes to party." One barb at the shurf came before "Police Truck," when he declared that the song about violent vigilante pseudo-cops "might not go over with Arpaio's wanna-be deputies.")

hen I interviewed Biafra back in 2006, he told me the following: "I'm very grateful that anyone would come to any of my shows when I've been at it this long, but it also brings with it a pressure to make sure I come up with something that's worth going to see," he explained.

So was it worth the $15 I paid to get into the Clubhouse? Most definitely. If for no other reason than to get to sing along to "Let's Lynch the Landlord" with its original vocalist (and not some failed child actor).

I could've done without seeing Jello blowing a couple snot rockets, however.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine at the Clubhouse Music Venue.

Better Than: The DK Kennedys show (featuring Brandon Cruz on vocals) I saw at Bash on Ash in 2002.

Personal Bias: I have this poster of Jello on my wall in my office.

Random Detail: When Ralph Spight took a moment to fix/adjust his guitar during a break between songs, I'm pretty sure I heard someone say "Ray's guitar broke," referencing "Night of the Living Rednecks" from Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. Bravo.

Further Listening: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables and Plastic Surgery Disasters, which are two of greatest punk albums ever recorded.

By The Way: The force of the pit kept throwing me into Tom Reardon (of Hillbilly Devilspeak/North Side Kings/Pinky Tuscadero's White Knuckle AssFuck fame), who was also trying to enjoy the show despite all the moshing.


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