The Boston Phoenix
January 13 - 20, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Caged Heat, New Year's Eve

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Caged Heat Caged Heat leader Jill Kurtz is a woman with a mission: she must rock, wherever and whenever possible. It's no coincidence that Caged Heat seem to turn up in half the local club listings lately. They really do play that often, as many as four times a week if you include Kurtz's solo gigs. Even a near-total change of band personnel last November didn't hurt their momentum -- the new line-up was playing a Twisted Rico label showcase at T.T. the Bear's Place barely two weeks later.

"I'm obsessed, I can't stop," Kurtz explains over a Guinness at the Druid, in Inman Square. It's early Wednesday evening and she's between a rehearsal and a gig, the first of four that she'd play in as many nights. "When the last band fell apart, I booked a bunch of solo gigs, so now I'm playing twice as often. Hey, I'm proud of myself for keeping it together. That's life, you break yourself up and you keep going." Asked when she knew she was destined to front a rock band, she fires back, "When I was conceived."

Rock-and-roll attitude is an elusive thing, but you can always tell when somebody's got it. And Kurtz is practically soaking in it. The songs on Caged Heat's debut, Serious Action (Twister Rico), revolve around angst, sex, and beer (not necessarily in that order), reflecting that manic urge to get in as many kicks as possible -- "Gotta get down to some serious action, yeah!" -- before the hangovers or the cops show up. The pick-up line in "With You" -- "Sexy boy come over here, I'm gonna get you a beer" -- is about as sentimental as it gets. But the closing acoustic number, "Bleed," brings out some of the underlying depression. Otherwise the sound is cheap thrills all the way, with echoes of the Stooges, the Dolls, and the million crazed teens on the Nuggets and Pebbles compilations. Kurtz's harmonica playing is the wild-card element. She can play legit blues harp, but she uses the instrument mainly to give a more lowdown feel to songs that are based in three-chord rock.

Caged Heat are now up to their third incarnation. The first, including Kate Freund and ex-Spore member Christian Negrette, lasted only a handful of gigs. This was the campiest incarnation -- they wore prison uniforms on stage in honor of the Roger Corman chicks-behind-bars film that gave Caged Heat their name. "It lasted just long enough to be cool, and we were saved from the shtick just in time," Kurtz says. "There's probably as many people that hate the name as there are that love it. But I have the film on tape and love that prison evil-bitch vibe. I could relate to that."

The next line-up fell apart last fall, a few weeks after the album came out. Now Caged Heat features some local guys who've been around the block a few times: drummer Jesse Mayer was in Shake the Faith, bassist Jonesy was in Fighting Cocks, and guitarist Tony Savarino has either the coolest or the cheesiest credit, having played alongside Dale Bozzio in a late line-up of Missing Persons. But Kurtz says this version gives her the punkier sound she's looking for, and that seemed to be the case the one time I caught them. "Not to slag off the last band, but they were into things like Mötley Crüe and Van Halen, which isn't what I'm into. They decided to leave, but there's no hard feelings. They did me a favor. I'm from that school where it's all rock and roll -- Chuck Berry, the Dolls, Joan Jett. It's all about putting it out there from the heart."

Kurtz did art before she did rock. She graduated from art school in New York and has shown her paintings and sculptures there. She also did the paintings for her band's album and a couple of compilations put out by Twisted Rico, and she took the cover photos for Bullet LaVolta's last album. Her first band, Ashera, formed soon after graduation. "Other than that I pretty much partied -- it was all sex, drugs, rock and roll, and art." She drops a few hints about her darker side -- which may be a surprise if you've met her only in clubs, where she comes off as a pretty upbeat person. "No, I don't think a lot of people would call me upbeat. I spend a lot of time being pissed off at the way life is. I can only smile for about half an hour." The interviewer checks his watch. "Yeah, time is running out -- I'm about to go into an extreme bout of depression. I'm prone to that, like a lot of people are."

And that's when rock and roll comes to the rescue. "When I write songs, it's really about the usual things. Love, hate, obsession, dirt, smut. And then love again. I just write to exorcise my demons."

Does it work? "No. It just reminds me that they're there."


New Year's at the Middle East was great fun until midnight came around, the power went out, all the systems crashed, and everybody died. Only kidding. In fact, the big moment came and went with a surprising lack of hoopla. The upstairs room was between bands at the time, so nobody even bothered to do a countdown -- which left a lot of confused people looking around the room at 12:01 a.m. Downstairs headliners Man . . . or Astro-man? commemorated the occasion at the night's end by staging a mock apocalypse, setting fireworks to their equipment, and sending a robot to inform the audience that the world had just ended. But the closest thing to a Y2K glitch to happen upstairs was that Al "Alpo" Paulino blew a bass amp during the Real Kids' opening set. Band leader John Felice assured the crowd that such things happen to them all the time.

Opening the old-school extravaganza upstairs were the Classic Ruins, an underrated band then and now, with the usual dry wit in Frank Rowe's lyrics. I've yet to hear a funnier punk-rock slice o' life than "Rocco's Wake," which is about crashing a stranger's funeral for the free food and booze. "If you'd liked us this much in the '80s, we wouldn't have broken up," Rowe noted at set's end. But the final song of 1999 went to Unnatural Axe, who opted for the Rubinoos oldie "Rock 'n' Roll Is Dead ( . . . and we don't care)" -- not a bad choice, but their own "They Saved Hitler's Brain," performed earlier in the set, was just as suited to the anti-sentimental nature of the evening. Unnatural Axe continue to play more gigs than any defunct band this side of the Titanics, and they show no signs of slowing down. "We'd like to announce that this is the last gig that Unnatural Axe will ever play . . . ," proclaimed frontman Rich Parsons at a quarter to midnight, " . . . this year."

As zero hour got closer, the choice was between the Shods downstairs and the Real Kids upstairs. If you chose the first, you got a hard-driving, punk/pop set that peaked with "All Kindsa Girls." If you chose the second, you got a hard-driving, punk/pop set that peaked with "All Kindsa Girls." Along with their Real Kids cover, the Shods did a lot of the material from the current Thanks for Nuthin, and they showed they've reached the point where their familiar bluster can co-exist with more chops and a fuller on-stage sound, as heard in the added keyboards and harmonies.

As for the Real Kids, they were the same but different. They still play nearly everything from their first album, and Felice's new songs are just as catchy and girl-obsessed as the old ones ("You look so good and I need you somethin' bad" is an ageless sentiment if there ever was one). What's new is a sense of purpose that wasn't there the last time the band reunited, in the early '90s. Getting embraced by the West Coast punk revival has done wonders for the their self-esteem, and it's brought a lot of younger faces to the shows. They even had a woman climbing on her date's shoulders to lift her shirt and flash the band during "Do the Boob"; no doubt she attached her own meaning to the song's title (which actually refers to scenester and band pal Bob "the Boob" Colby). The A-side of the Real Kids' first TKO single, "Down to You," is a song that's been around forever: Felice originally recorded it in 1980 with his first post-Kids band, the Taxi Boys. But they play it with more drive now than they did then, and after two decades that's about the highest praise there is.


Papas Fritas Much-liked popsters Papas Fritas have been AWOL for the past couple of years, but their third album is finally in the can and you'll likely hear most of it when they play the Middle East tonight (Thursday). Also tonight, one of roots rock's great eccentrics, Leon Russell, makes his annual visit to the House of Blues, and Devil Gods have their CD-release party at Bill's Bar . . . Last year Paula Kelley finally seemed to have her ideal Boy Wonder line-up set, so she's picking an odd time to scuttle the band. They'll get a proper sendoff at T.T.'s tomorrow night (Friday) with kindred spirits the Pills, the Den Mothers, and the Gravy. The Red Krayola may have been the most off-the-wall band to come out of the '60s psychedelic school; leader Mayo Thompson was also in the most avant line-up of Pere Ubu. The band are now into their fifth decade, and anything can happen when the current line-up hits the Middle East on Friday. Also that night, an outfit you simply can't see too many times, NRBQ, brings the good times to the House of Blues.

Berklee resident rock legend Al Kooper plays the House of Blues on Saturday, and the most fun tribute band in town, Brad Delp's Beatle Juice, are at Johnny D's . . . Depending on which night you catch them, Guided by Voices are either your ideal drinking buddies or one of the best bands in the world. They play Monday and Tuesday at the Middle East . . . And as if the Tarbox Ramblers' weekly gigs at Green Street weren't enough, frontman Michael Tarbox is doing a January residency of early shows Tuesdays at Toad.

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