There may be no better way to describe Quintron than to describe the reaction of the crowd at his Saturday set opening up for the Black Lips. Minutes before Quintron took the stage, the show sold out, but of course, most were at the Black Cat to see the headliner. Few knew what they were going to get first.
With the headlights along the automobile grill that fronts his custom-combo organ/synthesizer blinding the crowd, Quintron took the stage a silhouette in a cloud of smoke. As he started his drum machine and its accompaniment, the light-activated Drum Buddy of his own invention, he played droney organ for a bit, then his wife and collaborator Miss Pussycat joined him on stage and they kicked off the set proper with "Shoplifter" from the 2005 album "Swamp Tech," their last full-length release, which came out shortly after Hurricane Katrina wrecked their hometown and Ninth Ward club. Quintron's swamp tech sound is a blend of Jimmy Smith's soulful jazz organ playing, Jon Spencer's irreverent punk slap on roots music and Prince's pop sensibility, and it is completely unique. Quintron is a one-man dance party with Miss Pussycat cheering him on with her maracas and vocals. They definitely had fans in the room, as the crowd up against the stage was moving from the beginning and throwing their hands in the air. The rest of the room looked on curiously.
The set picked up energy with the third song, "Fly Like a Rat," another selection from "Swamp Tech." Though Quintron makes music to make you dance, "Rat" absolutely rocked, with help from Miss Pussycat, who got so worked up the green muppet puff ball atop her head flew off. The set mostly featured songs from "Swamp Tech," but they also offered a couple of selections from the recent "Jamskate" EP. Quintron pointed emphatically at his wife as he dedicated "Wild West," a song about New Orleans after Katrina. Before "Place Unknown," Quintron asked that the lights be turned down for his Drum Buddy, a contraption in which what looks like a coffee can with holes punched in it is place over a light bulb. As the can spins and light comes through the holes and hits oscillators, beats result. Another cheerleader joined the happy couple on stage -- I believe she was introduced as Shopping Bear -- for "Place Unknown," a song dating back to 2003 that was the oldest song they'd perform. Through this song, more and more people began to dance. Maybe they were fans who've yet to pick up "Swamp Tech," or maybe the groove was finally starting to sink in among the uninitiated. Next, "Swamp Buggy Baddass" -- all swagger and attitude -- was played with an extended, simple intro. "I can see you're a bad ass," Quintron joked about a spectator's matching headband and necklace and Green Mountain sweatshirt. "You dressed up to go out to a rock show."
Quintron announced he'd do a few more songs before Miss Pussycat would perform one of her puppet shows. I was relieved. Usually the puppet shows open the set, and when Quintron started playing before I got to see the puppets, I worried I missed the show while waiting in line a half-hour to get inside. The dancing kept spreading through the room during the bouncy "Witch in the Club," but the vibe didn't infect everyone. Early on, many Black Lips fans fled to the back or outside for a smoke or downstairs for a drink. Some of the initially indifferent eventually converted. Some poked fun at the act. Others laughed with it. Then after the rollicking Miss Pussycat song "Love Is Like a Blob," Quintron treated us to his latest great composition, "Jamskate" itself. While cleaner than most of his material, it is quintessential Q. It's fun. And it perfectly -- though, of course given the artist, oddly -- pulls off what it claims to be. It is a jam that begs to be played in a roller rink. Unfortunately, I've never encountered the rink that would take it.
The puppet show was set in a haunted art gallery owned by a creature who liked to collect paintings by wicked sorcerers and insane people. One art lover was turned into a marble statue, but Santa Claus, a familiar character in Miss Pussycat's puppet shows, saved the day when he cut the owner down with a machine gun. To introduce her puppet show, Miss Pussycat poked her head out through the curtain above a puppet's body. It was then when I found a spokesman for the humorless and curmudgeonly in the crowd. "This is why hipsters are retarded," said the guy with the übercool, narrow, rectangle frame glasses and the faux Greenwich thrift store jacket certainly bought new -- it was too stiff and clean to be true, and his less-vocal, less-critical buddy wore one as well. "I know," said his companion girl in her black "Star Wars" T-shirt. "Black Lips has these guys opening for them? I'm so disappointed." What the groups have in common, in addition to a foot in the swamp and an ear for great garage rock, is a fun-lovin' attitude.
For their part, the Lips sounded better than they did when they opened for The Ponys at the same venue last year. Then, the songs were too awash in noise and volume. Though still punky and energetic, the band let the songs come through the sound this time, allowing the roots to be heard. They played with a film projection lighting them instead of the usual spots and stage lights, which made me think of the Yardbirds in the 1966 Antonioni film "Blow-Up," but the Black Lips' film would be a B horror movie. They started off the set the way they started off the excellent 2007 LP "Good Bad Not Evil" with the classically bluesy "I Saw a Ghost" and the hurricane song "O Katrina!" The latter deals with more serious subject matter than the band usually addresses but does so with the group's wit in tact, as they sing, "Oh Katrina, why you gotta be so mean?" In that way it's reminiscent of Quintron's light-hearted, pre-Katrina songs "Hurricane" and "Underwater Dance Club." (Many New Orleans residents always knew the threat was real, living below sea level and all, but often brushed it off with an it-won't-happen-to-me attitude familiar to drunken drivers and unprotected-sex practitioners.) The Lips' wit was never more evident than in "Dirty Hands." They said they were going to slow it down a bit and played this song that spoofs the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" with the lyric "Do you really wanna hold my dirty hands?" They played it with a style and tone remarkably true to '60s British Invasion that it was astonishing. Despite all the punk volume and noise and the garage sloppiness, the Black Lips, when they're on point, deliver the most authentic retro sound around. Both the humor and authenticity continued with "Bad Kids," on which the band groups itself with others considered wrong because they're different, because they're not college-bound or trendy. A sound byte from probably the same recording they used in intro'ing "Slime and Oxygen" on their last LP was used to intro "Cold Hands." "What's wrong with America when 80 teenagers a day commit suicide," the voice pleaded. With that song, the garage fury really began to sink in, but nowhere was it more effective than on the rowdy stomp "Ain't Coming Back."
The Lips made a hard-rockin' mess of "Juvenile," complete with battle smashing noise, to end their main set, then quickly returned for an encore, taking the stage as the soulful, Vietnam-era recording of "Veni Vidi Vici" filtered through the room. Though a great song, it was awkward to listen to and see them join in with a prerecording, but without it, the song might not swing like it does on record. "Workin'" had a new energy live, almost matching the raucousness of "Ain't Coming Back," and the Lips finally called it quits with another rockabilly foot stomp.
Early in their career, the band gained a reputation as the wildest in Atlanta, with stories of them being banned from several venues there. Maybe this is the wildest thing to come from Atlanta -- my experiences in that city lead me to believe it wouldn't be a hard title to take -- but on stage at the Cat, they were just a scruffy, energetic bunch. They bounced around a lot, thrashed a bit and worked up the crowd, but they didn't do anything over the top. What did surprise me, though, was the number of people I saw kicked out of the place. There were a couple of stage divers who got booted. I also saw an unusual number of crowd surfers, but is that a bootable offense? I saw many a black X on the back of underage hands, so drinking offenses could have been the culprit. Regardless, what the Black Lips failed to deliver as far as their legendary shock value, the crowd apparently picked up the slack.