If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.
This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.
Night Five: Hoodoo Gurus
Some nights you don’t want to think of rock ‘n’ roll as great art. The Hoodoo Gurus know just what you need: to be hammered upside the head with terrific songs, one after another, until you start bouncing up and down like a brainless organ grinder’s monkey, begging for a banana. San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall is about half-full of people tonight, mostly in their 40s, who have left their social-networking devices in their pockets, so they can beg for bananas and concentrate on the thunder from Down Under about to beat them senseless.
Led by genial frontman Dave Faulkner and longtime members Brad Shepherd (guitar) and Mark Kingsmill (drums), along with bassist Richard Grossman (added in 1988), the Hoodoo Gurus stroll on stage after a short DJ set of stuff they grew up on: Velvet Underground, Flamin’ Groovies, Stones, Roxy Music. Faulkner’s trying to grow some of his hair back from the cueball-shaved look he sported for the band’s previous S.F. visit at tiny Cafe du Nord in 2007.
Faulkner formed Le Hoodoo Gurus in Perth, Western Australia, in 1981, but soon moved to Sydney and acquired Shepherd and Kingsmill. The Gurus were one of the de facto leaders of a brilliant assault force of Aussie big-guitar bands from the ’80s, most of whom achieved at least cult status in the U.S. It’s a lineup that included Screaming Tribesmen, Died Pretty, Celibate Rifles, the Sunnyboys, Eastern Dark, the Hitmen, the Scientists, New Christs, the Stems, Lime Spiders and the Hard-Ons.
“Wow, what a place!” Faulkner marvels at the ornate, Edwardian interior of the Great American Music Hall. “If we neglect your particular orientation, just give us a kiss,” he adds before launching into something from what he describes as “our much-neglected Mach Schau album. It didn’t sell much.” Like most of the anthems from a band savvy enough to title one of its nine albums Magnum Cum Louder (including those from current release Purity Of Essence), the song seems tailor-made for a thorough sonic shower, guaranteed to leave you refreshed if a little sweatier.
“I Want You Back,” from their 1983 debut longplayer Stoneage Romeos, features chiming guitar work and high-pitched, signature “Aah aah-aah, aah aah-aah” background vocals. “What’s My Scene,” from 1987’s Blow Your Cool, gives Shepherd room to stretch out on a spiraling guitar solo reminiscent of the best work of True West’s Richard McGrath.
“Now we’ll play that tribal number that you do so well, sir,” says Faulkner, bowing in the direction of Kingsmill, whose flailing, caveman drums strike enough sparks to ignite a raging bonfire to help ward off nocturnal danger. “Leilani” is a steaming, Bataan death march through the remote jungles of New Guinea, deep into a forgotten, headhunter-infested land where crazy reports of Stone Age reptiles have made their way back to Australia. The hypnotic “Whoa-o, whoa-o, whoa-o” auxiliary vocals meshing with Kingsmill’s throbbing floor-tom work make you well aware that it might not be a good idea to stray from the main path. Like most of the Gurus’ signature favorites, “Leilani” has been extended live into a 10-minute epic guaranteed to give you your money’s worth.
Faulkner seems truly sad to announce, “We’re going to have to break our string tonight with our next selection. Every show we’ve ever played in San Francisco has always featured a member of the Flamin’ Groovies. But I don’t see him anywhere about tonight.”
M.I.A. is guitarist/songwriter Cyril Jordan who covered “Bittersweet,” originally from the Gurus’ 1985 LP Mars Needs Guitars,” on a 1986 Groovies album titled One Night Stand. The tune sounds properly bitter and sweet tonight, played in missing-man formation. “Thanks, Cyril,” Faulkner murmurs as the last notes decay about him.
As a band that’s been playing with practically the same personnel for almost 30 years, the Hoodoo Gurus have become a well-oiled, rust-resistant machine. Their set list is backloaded with winners, none more bloodcurdling than Faulkner’s gem “Like Wow- Wipeout,” which poaches the Spectorian drum intro from the Ramones’ “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” then runs in the other direction with it. (“I kiss the ground on which you walk/I kiss the lips through which you talk/I kissed the city of New York when I first met you.”) Once again, Faulkner screams out his utter devotion to some road conquest, while Shepherd turns a “chainsaw massacre” guitar solo into a screaming delight that channels a Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds rave-up along with the Count Five channeling the Yardbirds. It’s a blistering gem, the Hoodoo Gurus at their very best, forced to watch some girl eating cake while they have to eat the crumbs. Of course, they’ll eat those crumbs for as long as the band exists. And like it!