‘Hitmaker’ Jon Spencer at the Black Cat

IMG_6506When Jon Spencer took the stage arranging his amps before his latest band started playing Saturday night at the Black Cat in D.C., nobody much responded. Maybe they didn’t recognize him with glasses.

But when he doffed the glasses, Clark Kent-like, suddenly he was the mercurial rocker, with an Elvis Presley voice, a rock ’n’ roll soul and manic psychobilly punk style.

Once part of such bands as Pussy Galore, Boss Hog, Heavy Trash and the epic Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, he now fronts a trio modestly called The Hitmakers. As such, the bulk of his set came from playing all 12 tracks on the recent Spencer Sings the Hits he recorded in Benton Harbor, Mich.

“Ready for more hits?” he’d say mid-set, with no little irony. As influential as he’s been on rock’s underground, he’s never come close to having a hit — even if his sounds helped powered a recent Hollywood hit, “Baby Driver.”

But what he did was hard hitting, that’s for sure. The tight circle of the band had Sam Coomes, of Quasi and Heatmiser, on keyboards, and the young M. Sord on drums, augmented by the unusual percussion by onetime Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, who spent time in Pussy Galore with Spencer.

People talk about the gritty, piston-beats of industrial Michigan coming through its home-grown rock, but here was Bert wailing away on what looked to be an old Chevy gas tank with a pair of hammers. (On the album, the equipment is identified as “gas tank, strut spring, brake rotor, metal table, ventilation duct, unistrut, 2” EMT conduit, ball peen hammer”). Its distinct ping plays off Sord’s cellar-floor boom but helped conjure the heavy beat that’s always been a part of Spencer’s innate swagger.

And in the center, all eyes are on Spencer, at 53 no longer the wonder boy, but still snaking around and handling the middling guitar pieces, which always stood out more for their passion than their precision, but are all in the tradition of rock ’n’ roll. His vocals go deep into Presley territory, distorted by his penchant for resting his sneering mouth on the microphone and sonically swallowing it.

And the lyrics are consistent, simple, and often funny.

Things like “Do the Trash Can,” which opens the new album and the show, sounds like classic Cramps, with the swampy voice invoking a dance move to a thudding beat that’s even more insistent. It slowed down only occasionally, as in the relatively extended “Love Handle” that ended the main set, when he asked an existential question for which he really seemed to want an answer: “Wasn’t it supposed to be get easier?”

Amid the Hitmakers output came only a few samples from the past — two Pussy Galore songs, one from Heavy Trash, and two from the Blues Explosion, “Dang” and the spelled-out fashion celebration of “Shirt Jac.”

Coomes, who has quite a rock pedigree himself, took lead vocals a couple times from the keyboards, where he also held down the bass notes. Otherwise he was deep in the swirl of Spencer-world.

There was some surprising distain for copycat bands without game, excoriated on both “Fake” and “Beetle Boots,” in which he criticizes those getting in bands with “misguided intentions.”

And as much as a throwback he seems to the wild abandon of punk with rockabilly roots, he announces on “Wilderness,” “Set the Wayback Machine for never!”).

Spencer’s is a world where he celebrates freedom (“Hornet”) and going wild. In “Cape,” he celebrates wearing a rock ’n’ roll cape that eventually makes him a superhero (“Calling out Batgirl!”).

The succinct sentiment is made more emphatic not only by thudding riffs but by the brevity of the songs; he fit in about 21 in an hour, closing the encore with the double-whammy of the Heavy Trash anthem “The Loveless” into the Modern Lovers’ anthemic “Road Runner.”

And there was no fake band opening for him either. It was the Ar-kaics from Richmond, a quartet that lives in the garage rock sounds of the Seeds, minus the cape.

The setlist for Jon Spencer & The Hitmakers Saturday was: 

  • “Do the Trash Can”
  • “Just Wanna Die”
  • “Fake”
  • “Alien Humidity”
  • “Wilderness”
  • “Overload”
  • “Pretty Fuck Look”
  • “Tough Times in Plastic Land”
  • “Time 2 Be Bad”
  • “Ghost”
  • “Dang”
  • “Beetle Boots”
  • “New Breed”
  • “Shirt Jac”
  • “I Got the Hits”
  • “Love Handle”
  • “Hornet”
  • “Cape”
  • “No Count”
  • “The Loveless”
  • “Road Runner”
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