Petaluma School of Music: Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, Ashtray, & Cormorant @ The Phoenix Theater, Petaluma, 2/27/10
I parked my car in front of a grocery store down the street from the venue. As I walked by, I saw a bunch of young high school kids skateboarding in the parking lot, and some about to get into a fight. Ah, the disillusioned youth of small town America. It reminded me of the tiny town where I went to high school; but where my town had Luckenbach bringing country stars to the area, this place has the legendary Phoenix Theater. Bradley Nowell, lead singer for Sublime, OD’ed after playing a show here. Local legends like Metallica, Green Day, and AFI have played it as well. It was almost poetic for me to finally see Jello Biafra perform in such a venue.
As I waited in line at will call, two very young girls in front of me can’t even stand still they are so excited. They turn around and ask me, “What happens if you don’t have a ticket? Like, we just have money?!” I feel bad because I laughed. But I let them know that you could probably buy a ticket at the will call counter.
I walked in and was immediately sent into shock by the uniqueness of this place. I ran into Arthur- lead singer/bassist for Cormorant- right away, who let me know that they’d be on in about 10 minutes. That’s good timing on my part! I walked past the graffiti covered walls and sporadically placed couches and chairs to the main part of the floor. There’s a half pipe on the walls perpendicular to the stage! And it’s not a design technique- Arthur tells me that kids were actually skating on it just before I got there. And people sit at the top during the shows. I’d never seen that before!
I was very interested to see how the crowd would react to Cormorant‘s set, considering the other two bands are punk. I mean, Cormorant isn’t just metal, it’s death metal. As they began, the first growl that escaped from Arthur was almost hesitant, and it felt jarring filling the cavernous space of the venue. But after that, the crowd drew closer, the sound settled into the space, and the Phoenix was rattled by the complex, esoteric brand of metal that Cormorant served up. Arthur took a moment to address the crowd regarding their fit with the otherwise punk bill- pointing out that Jello is into metal, citing his involvement with Ludicra, Neurosis, and The Melvins. Arthur is kind of like a wikipedia for metal – read my interview with him here. Their set showcased their variety- from harder hitting death metal, to folk metal, to instrumental prog metal. I was standing in front of guitarist Matt Solis, so I was totally geeking out on his work. I tried to film my favorite song of theirs – Trojan Horses- but the mosh pit started at that exact moment and my Flip camera failed me at the end…but you can get a taste for them:
Afterwards, I was chatting with Arthur and he told me about their plans to release some of their ‘jam sessions’ routinely through the website they are working on, and they plan to have their next album out by the end of the year. They also have a couple of shows coming up at Thee Parkside and The Vine in Santa Rosa.
The lighting in this place is really weird, thus, low-fi iPhone pics are even more lo-fi…
It was really, really jarring to go from history and philosophy filled lyrics to Ashtray. The set began with the statement “This is a song about drinking Robitussin for fun!”…which went into one about running out of beer or something. Vocal duties are shared by a male and a female- who’s Betty Boop singing voice was something I don’t think I’ve ever experienced live before. But after a few songs I eased into it. Then they got me with their song, ‘Back in the Day’. “This is a song about all of those people who try to tell you things were better back in the day”…to which someone in the audience yelled, “they were!!!”. But, in all seriousness, I so share the feeling that went into writing this song. I feel like every single fucking day I get an email or someone tells me about how things were soooo much better back when such and such happened, or how they saw so and so before they were famous, and how today is just lame. Well you know what? Good for you, but please stop showing off. I know I missed out on a lot, but I’m trying to make up for it now. Between songs, the female singer told everyone to come forward and fill in the space in front of the stage, to which the guy goes, ‘aww, don’t do that, I hate when bands do that!’, and she goes, ‘thanks for belittling me on stage’, and he goes, ‘wow, we really are a married couple, aren’t we’. HAHAHA! Classic. The rest of the set I spent watching the ridiculous hardcore dancers…damn, you Flip camera! Why did you have to quit on me? Well, I guess this video kinda shows you what I was dying laughing at:
Their Operation Ivy cover really got the crowd going. At one point, this really, really drunk guy flopped on the floor and used his feet to spin himself around, in a failed breakdance move. I was beginning to think someone had slipped acid to me, or them. Hmmm….
I could just feel the unruliness level surge in the room as Jello’s band walked out on stage, so I moved out of the way and to the corner, behind the stairs to the stage. Yes- stairs- right there. There should be a sign- ‘use these to jump onstage and crowd surf’. I saw this older woman walk up to the stage, and I did a double take as she had what looked like blood on her face and hands and was holding a red cup. I was like, ‘WTF?’ and then security got her and took her backstage. And then out runs Jello in a doctor’s coat covered in ‘blood’ with blood on his hands.
While this would be my first time seeing Jello do a full set, I’ve seen him as a special guest with Tool and Fucked Up. But I’ve stood in a crowd with him countless times over the years- at Mayhem last year he practically stood on top of me with two drinks in his hands. Last I saw him, I was walking backstage at Motorhead behind him and his lady. We were both wearing cowboy boots. Mine > his.
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine is about 70% music, 30% political rally. Jello is the protest leader, educating us on all things fucked up with the government, calling out all of the enemies, and at the same time schooling many vocalists half his age with his energy. He’s all over the place, the poor mic tech scrambling the whole time to keep up with him. He’s crowd surfing during ‘California Uber Alles’ and ‘Holiday in Cambodia’, he’s baptizing the crowd with water, he’s screaming introductions to every song- ‘this is from the Seattle protests’, ‘this is for Gavin Newsom’, ‘this is about Barack Star and his new feudalism’.
The crowd was going mad. I was standing behind this young punk couple; the girl was standing on the stairs and the guy was sitting on the stage. There are no rules here. Intermittently throughout the set, he would run off into the mosh pit and then come back. Once he stood up and ran onto the main part of the stage and dove off. Then she did the same. Each time they would come back and kiss and hug. Seriously.
The band sounded great- they come from a smattering of other bands (I believe the bassist is from Hammers of Misfortune). But the focus is obviously on Jello, who is just one of most physical performers I’ve ever seen. He’s making all of these hand gestures, mimicking things that have to do with the songs, like typing during ‘Electronic Plantation’. I was drawing a lot of similarities between him and Iggy Pop, whose ‘The Idiot’ I’ve been listening to a lot lately.
There were two encores, each getting more and more chaotic.
You can catch Jello and the GSM at Bottom of the Hill on Wednesday, and then on the East Coast towards the end of March.
It was a truly unique evening. I think I’ll keep my eye on the calendar for this venue, as it was well worth the road trip.