Part of the fun of living in a large city with a colorful music scene comes on Halloween, when local bands masquerade as big-time rock stars and have a high old time rebranding classic rock. I'm still waiting to hear Pilsen noise-rockers Melk Belly take on Talking Heads or queer neurotic punkers Absolutly Not take on Devo. For now, the mash-up of queer-flavored homies Yoko and the Oh No's ripping through a set of Bowie covers seemed too good and too obvious to be true.
Granted, Yoko lead vocalist Max Goldstein has, at the tender age of 22, managed to redefine glam rock, high fashion, androgyny and homocore into a gleaming look that feels new and revolutionary. To top that off, the man has a voice so expressive and rich that its literally unnerving. ( In an earlier review, I called his "the finest voice you've never heard on the radio." ) The Oh No's ( Stef Roti on drums, Max Loabman on guitar and guests Adam Asani on bass and Vince Pimenta on guitar ) are certainly no slouches either, and they play with muscle and drive, making their straight up pop hit like a Mack truck. That this gig was a 30-minute opening slot for Jukebox the Ghost at Lincoln Hall on Oct. 29 in front of a rowdy bunch of out-of-towners who had never heard of them was hardly a challenge, but an invite.
Despite the horrendous lighting, Goldstein hit the stage in Bowie's trademark orange mohair-and-zoot suit and ripped through a set that featured the usual suspects ( a wobbly "Suffragette City," a ringing "The Man who Sold the World" and a luminous "Space Oddity" ) with a sprinkling of delicious surprises. The first, "Rebel, Rebel," got the treatment it always deserved and in this bonkers version, the Oh No's revealed a facet of the song that the majority of the world willfully ignored at first listen: the song is really a call to action for queer youth of every shape, size, gender, sexuality, and color. When Goldstein and Loabman snarled "Hot Tramp...I LOVE YOU SO!!!," it was hard not to think of every queer outlaws like Quentin Crisp, Jon Henry Damski or even local drag personality Ms. Ketty.
"Diamond Dogs" went straight out of control, with Roti beating the holy crap out of her kit and Goldstein grabbing the lyrics and singing with glee. Since it was clear that Loabman and Goldstein were having the time of their lives rocking out it came as a surprise when they whipped out the nights big corker, the obscure "Win" from Bowie's first foray into funk/soul, Young American. Slowing the pace to an unexpected crawl, it was a brilliant show case not only of Goldstein but of the entire band. Measured, slow and careful, The Oh No's conveyed the emotional core of the original while giving it a lustrous sheen. As for that audience who had never heard of them, after the band had left the stage many of them, who had yelled their lungs out for the entirety of the set got on their iPhones to find out, "Who the F*CK were those guys?"
The other delight of the autumnal season is the start of winter solstice and, on Nov. 1, The Empty Bottle hosted an inspired bill of art rock, techno, disco, and trance that touched on tribalism, paganism, theater, seasonal pageants, female empowerment, gender fluidity, high and low visual art, and lots and lots of bare ass-shaking.
First on the bill was DIY pioneer Heather Lynn and her Pure Magical Love, which is actually a dance troupe with a catch. Shrouded in black and white, said dancers walked to the stage like some haunted procession while Lynn accompanied them on a programed keyboardbut that hardly describes the performance.
EDM tracks like "Live Forever" and "New Blood" had a hallowed spooky vibe with layers of vocals spoken/sung in a near deadpan tone which gave the whole set a warped though engaging quality. "New Blood" in particular made it clear with the lyrics, "No vampires allowed in my house/We seek the new creation" that safe-guarded spaces are essential in our current times. The impression I got was that Pure Magical Love's message could have been aimed at any number of individuals who seek to divide, enslave, exploit, and conquer ( the current president, sexual predators, the Christian right, anti-LGBTQ and women's-rights advocates, white supremacists ). With all the movement and talent onstage ( including costumes designed by Rebirth Garments ), the performance reached a moment of grace with Lynn's unexpected reading of Tom Petty's "Running Down a Dream," which seemed odd but accessible. Her remake of the song stretched it out like fresh taffy while her spacey vocal transformed it into a lilting ghostly dirge that was haunting and lovely.
All that high art got blown into orbit once Real Dom hit the stage and tore through a one-man dance/music/video performance laced with muscularity and raw sex. As a painter, vocalist, video artist and half of Trash Twins, Dom has devised a way to incorporate his talents into an action packed free for all that mixes music, dance, striptease, drag and film into one big sweaty explosion. Although he sang like an angel trapped in a gilded cage, his set was booby-trapped with snippets of altered songs ( including a distorted take on Fleetwood Mac's "Go your Own Way" ) and, though it was a lot of fun, I couldn't tell what it all meant. Of course, while he ripped through his steroid-laced take of Abba's "Mamma Mia" and the entire audience got into a fevered booty-shaking melee, it didn't much matter.
The headliner, Emily Kemp's Vail, seemed to challenge everything before it by going in the opposite direction both artistically and stylistically. Her dance trouperather then execute the athletic moves of Pure Magical Love and Real Domstrove to present a graceful, lyrical, almost gossamer pageant that recalled goddess rituals from the middle ages mixed with Bert Parks at his showiest.
As opposed to Pure Magical Love's black-and-white color scheme and the vacant center of the music, Kempf's group wore bright sunflower yellow with swirling gold lame capes and a subdued soundtrack that literally evaporated into the atmosphere. The overall effect was bewildering and refreshing, as it was clear that the music, look, props ( a see-through tent with Christmas tree lights, a throne and even Real Dom as a fetish oject ) and costumes were designed to create a complete experience and not merely a set. Still, "Sweat" and "Pilsen Party," with Kempf singing in a wispy tone, the low-key melodies had a haunting quality that stuck like a fragrance and the impact was altogether bewitching.