Review: Jon Spencer’s Kinetic Energy Drives 40 Watt Club Show

Barrages of shrill tremolo ripped through the festooned orange string lights and faux cobwebs clinging to light fixtures of a Halloween-themed 40 Watt Club. The source of the barrage was Clay Reed, lead guitarist and singer of the Atlanta-based, glam rock trio Subsonics.

Justin Morris is a fourth-year journalism major. (Photo/Justin Morris)

While the sound blasting from the Subsonics’ amps was muddled and the lyrics were inundated in a deluge of sound beyond comprehension, the band’s excitement was clear, thanks to their idiosyncrasies on display to the sparse, Tuesday night audience in October. Reed dropped to his knees with every guitar solo and drummer Buffi Aguero played standing up — literally hopping along to the beat of her own drum. 

Subsonics overstayed its welcome by just a few songs, but seemed to realize this, evacuating the stage with little sound or fury in anticipation of the main act: Jon Spencer and the HITmakers, fresh off the release of their debut album “Spencer Gets It Lit.” 

The album is underwhelming, with Spencer and company never following any given musical thread for more than a few bars before losing interest and jumping to something else. Furthermore, the absence of a bassist is painfully obvious on the album and leaves the mix feeling overly gossamer.

This was not an issue for the band live. Sam Coomes’ crunchy, “Icky Thump” synth, which is prevalent on the album, stepped back to provide a much-needed foundation, while still sporadically peeking its head around the wall of sound and only taking center stage a couple times, like on “Junk Man,” providing the song with a playful and infectious riff.

The muddled lyrics that plagued the Subsonics’ performance haunted the HITmakers’ performance as well, though to lesser detriment as Spencer’s lyrics are rather arbitrary and act more as a vehicle for him to make noise. However, Spencer did attempt to inject some meaning into the show by pausing halfway through to deliver a brief political diatribe about abortion, which came off as unnecessarily obligatory and perhaps a little disingenuous coming from a man who once headed a rock band named  Pussy Galore.

The set list was mostly songs from the band’s debut, though there were a few tracks from some of Spencer’s previous projects sprinkled throughout. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion hit “Bellbottoms,” which listeners may recognize from the 2017 film “Baby Driver,” made an appearance. Though it was brief — acting more like an interlude — and Coomes’ stiff-backed synth couldn’t quite replicate the swaggering lead guitar of the recorded version, it was a welcome addition to the set, nonetheless.

Outside of “Bellbottoms” and “Junk Man,” there weren’t any other standouts, as the rest of the songs dwindled to a din of garage rock, which became sonically stale by the end of the performance.  However, the main draw of a Jon Spencer and the HITmakers performance is Spencer, himself. 

Spencer’s lanky build didn’t take up much of the stage, but his persona seemed to transcend the corporeal and envelope the venue with his kinetic freneticism.

He demanded a “yeah!” from the audience three times and was rewarded with a resounding response each time.

Clad in all black, including his hair which drapes down just above his shoulders, Spencer looks vaguely like Nick Cave. In fact, he shares a similar performing philosophy as Cave — both oscillate between singing and spoken word. But where Cave speaks, Spencer shouts.

After nearly 40 years of performing, Spencer still brings more than enough energy to sustain a show. He still brings antics like leaving his guitar wailing on the ground as he and the band walk off stage briefly before picking up where they left off. He still brings a tangible passion for showmanship.

Leaving the 40 Watt Club, a man outside told me that I had just seen “a real gangster.” I don’t know about a gangster, but Spencer is one hell of a performer. 

Justin Morris is a fourth-year journalism major.  

 

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