Maybe it's because I haven't seen him perform in such a small venue in such a long time or maybe it's because Blues Explosion hasn't been around in a while (though Spencer Dickinson did visit last fall), but this Heavy Trash thing seems to have rejuvenated Jon Spencer. Punk Elvis was back in full-preacher mode when his honky tonk band took the stage at the Rock and Roll Hotel Wednesday.
It was like seeing Spencer front the Blues Explosion 10 years ago, though it was unusual to see him playing an acoustic guitar for an entire set. His familiar calls -- "ladies and gentlemen," "thank you very much," "Yeah!" -- were ever present, as was his rallying cry, "Rock and rollllll!" Also in place were his struts, his oral fixation with the mic (lips all around the head of that thing), and his familiar pattern of singing a line, dropping near to a knee and popping right back up for the next line. It was a shame and a surprise, though, that the room was only at about a third of capacity. Those who did make the trek to H Street were rewarded and whipped into a near frenzy.
But it's not just Spencer's band, and any rejuvenation is at least in part due to the rest of the band, former Speedball Baby guitarist and Madder Rose bassist Matt Verta-Ray on lead guitar and opener PowerSolo filling out the lineup on baritone guitar, drums and upright bass. These musicians have a history of writing rootsy songs -- country, blues, rockabilly -- but playing them punk and full of humor. And they've all rubbed elbows with sleazy R&B outsider "The Black Godfather" Andre Williams, and it shows.
And PowerSolo's opening set showed why Spencer would seek them out for support. Both its R&B/soul-punk and its two guitars and drums lineup are a nod to Spencer's Blues Explosion and their shared affection for hill-country blues. But frontman Kim 'Kix' Jeppesen has a much goofier stage presence than Spencer, opting for the facial tics, clucks and barks of a trailer trash psychobilly rather than the cool, swagger of Sun Records stars. Jeppesen engaged the crowd, often bringing his goofiness down from the stage. His band often thrashed through their songs, but at the same time, the roots -- the blues and country and soul and R&B -- remained the focus of the music, rather than merely providing the sketch of the song and a taking a backseat to noisy rock and roll.
Heavy Trash's approach is similar (that acoustic guitar in Spencer's hand tips you off that it's not going to be as punk as you're used to from him). The band stays true to their honky tonk and rockabilly inspiration instead of their punk rock past. That wasn't the case with Speedball Baby and Blues Explosion, which were definitely punk bands first and foremost, blues aficionados on the side. Yet the band rocked and rollicked from the get go, opening the set with an energetic one-two punch of "Justine Alright" and "Yeah Baby," both from their self-titled debut. After that introduction, Heavy Trash focused mostly on their just-released second album, "Going Way Out with Heavy Trash," getting ever rootsier with the crunchy, haunting honky tonk of "That Ain't Right" and adding alt-pop in foot-stomping standout "Outside Chance."
Following "Double Line," which mixed cool, swinging guitar with brief moments of bombast, Spencer reminisced about his Georgetown days working at head shop Electrolax selling smoking accessories, at which point he recognized someone in the crowd who added that Spencer had made a fake ID for a mutual friend. "I did," he admitted. "Did it work?" He then introduced "She Baby" as a song about meeting his wife, Cristina Martinez, the first half of the sexiest couple in independent music. There was a lot of love in the set, despite all the sexual content of Heavy Trash's catalogue and the catalogue of Spencer's previous work. His vocals are still sexy and sick, but he preached positive messages throughout the show. The affectionate "Kissy Baby" was birth of rock and roll playful innocence.
And when he's not kissing, Spencer informed the crowd, he likes to "Rock and rolllllll!" The first set ended with "They Were Kings," Spencer's homage to his roots music inspirations, which is the one song on the new record begging to be a show closer. But the band came back for what was more second set than encore, going on and on with the garage punk rave up "I Want Oblivion," forelorn ballad "Crying Tramp" and the Stonesy celebration of loneliness, "The Loveless." Before taking the set to its conclusion, Spencer preached once more, repeating over and over, "We've got to keep it," before surmising with, "And when I keep it, I keep it clean." "This Day Is Mine" was a soulful burst of inspirational egotism, but "Take My Hand" took the set down a notch, preaching love once again, before a "Yeah Baby" reprise finally shut it down, fully equipped with Spencer's signature band introductions, another familiar friend for Spencer's die-hard fans. Lemme hear you say, "Yeah!"