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The Howling Hex featuring Neil Michael Haggerty with Philip Jenks - The Bottom of the Hill (San Francisco) - Saturday, March 18, 2006

28 March 2006

I have to admire the chutzpah of NEIL MICHAEL HAGGERTY(ex-ROYAL TRUX) for choosing to have a poet as his only opening act. I also have to admire PHILIP JENKS for having the guts to read his poetry in front of this largely rock and roll crowd. Finally, I have to admire the ‘talent buyers’ at The Bottom of the Hill for letting this happen.

As a poet and musician myself, I know how hard it is to combine these two genres, especially in rock venues (which generally benefit the poet more, in terms of visibility and money at least). Last year, DAMON AND NAOMI, did something similar while on tour. Instead of asking CONTINUOUS PEASANT to open for them, they asked me to read poetry. It almost didn’t happen though—after a great deal of persuasion, they managed to convince the booker, but only on the condition that other musical acts were brought in. Although Damon had recently published his own first volume of poetry, a book far superior to most other books by people who got famous as musicians first (see BILLY CORGAN), he didn’t want to read his own work in a rock context, nor did he even bring copies of it to hawk on this tour. Thus, sadly, his book remains largely unknown even among his sizable following.

Because of the resistance to making our show happen, I played a song on Naomi’s piano and read an excerpt from my memoir, in addition to reading poetry while my bassist played ambient feedback. By contrast, Jenks did a fairly straight poetry reading. Though noticeably nervous and hoarse, Haggerty’s crowd (I saw no one I knew from the local ‘poetry scenes’ there) eventually warmed up to Jenks’ work, especially his pieces about damaged cowboys, “blowjob trees,” and RICHARD NIXON.

When Haggerty’s new band, THE HOWLING HEX, took the stage, Jenks joined them for the entire set, mostly playing tambourine, but occasionally contributing howls of his own—influenced perhaps by MARK E. SMITH of THE FALL—while the band grooved on its extended jams. Though I stood next to the stage, Jenks’s words (and Haggerty’s, for that matter) were almost impossible to make out. Yet, even for someone who loves words in music as much as I, this hardly mattered—both because Haggerty and Jenks are planning to record together (in which the words will be more audible, I hope!) but also because the rhythm section of The Howling Hex was one of the tightest I’ve seen in years.

Most of the songs were at least seven minutes, and for well over an hour, the band played, almost nonstop, these very repetitive grooves, many of which reminded me of ‘60s—‘70s-era Detroit (both black and white). I also spotted some early DREAM SYNDICATE in Haggerty’s riffs. Though at times I wished they had mixed it up a little, ultimately, something made me stay, and it was the absolutely infectious sound—in short, the show rocked, giving new meaning to the maligned term “jam band.” It also didn’t hurt that there were a lot of very interesting young women there—Haggerty’s music is an excellent soundtrack for people watching!

Though my leg’s still screwed up, I found myself stand-dancing from the first number, and for a long time no one in the room was even shaking their stuff as much as I was—not that I really minded; it was great being watched by the mere head-boppers. About an hour into the set, some ‘hell’ finally broke lose, largely due to one woman who started screaming in high pitched sounds as she danced. Next thing I know, a veritable mosh-pit formed around her, as her energy spread to even the ‘cool’ or ‘geeky’ guys who wanted to get in on the action.

Because it took an hour of sustained throbbing grooves to get this (largely white) crowd to loosen up, I came out of this show with a better understanding of how Haggerty’s method of repetition works the crowd, like a “60-minute man,” as the old rhythm and blues song puts it, “15 minutes of blowing my top.” If it helps a poet like Philip Jenks piggy back onto this visceral Dionysian energy, that’s just sheer gravy. In a way, Jenks, with his words, is blowing Haggerty’s mind just as much.

Oh, and after the show was over, the dancing/screaming woman approached Haggerty’s bassist and told him to tell Michael how much she loved the show. The bassist then invited her to the Green Room, and the woman said “Oh, I don’t want to bug him.” The bassist, very good at playing it cool, assured her: “I really don’t think you’d be bugging him.” Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what happened next.