You won’t find the Fleshtones working the oldies circuit for Bic-toting Boomers looking to rekindle, if just for that moment, the fire of their youth. That’s because “America’s garage band”, contemporaries of the likes of the Cramps and the Ramones, have never stopped going since guitarist Keith Streng struck the band’s first power chord in 1976 New York. Indeed, amidst their endless touring around the world, the Fleshtones – comprised of Streng, drummer Bill Milhizer, bassist Ken Fox, and frontman Peter Zaremba – released their 22nd album, WHEEL OF TALENT, in early 2014.
The band still fires on all cylinders, as demonstrated during a November 2, 2014, performance at World Café Live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Fleshtones mined their nearly four-decade-old catalog, turning out crowd-riling gems like “Pretty Pretty Pretty” and “Girl from Baltimore,” but they also played recent songs, such as last year’s “Haunted Hipster” from the Halloween compilation MONDO ZOMBIE BOOGALOO. Fox and Streng, their lean frames poured into impossibly fitted jeans, are as restless onstage as ever, while Milhizer’s ace beats and Zaremba’s signature Farfisa organ and enthusiastic vocals pry loose even the most inert audience member. But perhaps as satisfying as the band’s seemingly boundless energy is their resilient and evident enthusiasm for their craft.
Prior to the show, my 8-year-old son and I spied Zaremba lingering about the bar at the back of the venue. We promptly picked up a copy of the band’s 2003 disc, DO YOU SWING?, at their merch table. I handed it to my son.
“Go for it, kiddo,” I said.
We headed back toward the bar, where my son waited for a break in conversation to approach Zaremba, who graciously signed the disc for the boy.
“I’m happy to sign any one of our albums,” Zaremba announced, “and do you know why? Because I’m proud of everyone of them.” He then turned and handed the disc to a man at the bar. It was Milhizer, who also signed the CD.
My son, elated, thanked them both. Milhizer smiled.
War, some say, is God’s way of teaching Americans geography. And while for many, sadly, that may still hold true, today’s digital technology readily issues passports to foreign landscapes for anyone with a Galilean sense of curiosity and a good wifi connection – particularly in the musical sphere. Indeed, fusions of Western sound as filtered through the experience of foreign cultures – and vice versa – make for some of today’s freshest, most exciting music, and the Internet offers an improbably diverse world of rhythms and melodies for those willing to listen.
Among my favorite acts of recent years is Bomba Estereo, a Colombian band at the forefront of a style some have dubbed “electrocumbia”, a seamless blend of indigenous rhythms, Latin, reggae, rock, and electronic music. I had longed to experience this monstrously heady fusion in person for the last several years, but the space/time continuum remained steadfastly averse to it; Bomba Estereo never played Baltimore, and driving 45 minutes to Washington, D.C., on a Monday night usually proved problematic.
That Davida and I finally leapt at the opportunity to instead drive twice as far on a Monday night, to World Café Live in Philadelphia, probably reflects our feelings for D.C. as much as any affinity for Philly. Leaving work an hour early meant our only significant challenge would be the Rush Hour of Brotherly Love.
Having arrived at our destination about an hour before the doors opened, we enjoyed a delicious Indian buffet dinner at the nearby Sitar India. (Being a buffet, it allowed us to not only eat our fill, but also be as fast or slow in the process as we wished.) Afterward, we enjoyed the mild evening air of mid-September as we wandered back to the venue.
It was our second trip to World Café Live, the first having taken place a year earlier, when we took our 7-year-old son to his first concert, a Halloween-themed triple bill of the Fleshtones, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Los Straitjackets called “Mondo Zombie Boogaloo” (after a collaborative album of the same name). We’d found both sound and stage favorable, the staff to be most accommodating, and the restrooms quite clean. We bought drinks at the bar, then wandered out to the still-empty floor.
With their own blend of Latin, jazz, funk, and psychedelia, opening act Los Crema Paraiso proved well-suited to the task. I particularly dug the Venezuelan band’s seven-minute trance-epic called “Shine On You (Crazy Diablo)”, as well as the bouncy jangle of “Petrocumbia”. The next day, in fact, we bought their album, El Debut, online. (Curiously, neither band had a merch table that night.). When their set concluded, Davida and I staked out our places at the foot of the stage.
Upon taking the stage, Bomba Estereo unleashed a sonic juggernaut, an irresistible melting pot of jungle noise and urban nightlife. I found the lighting – which more often than not cast the band in silhouette (and sometimes total darkness) while at times, in fact, spotlighting the audience instead – to be especially interesting.
Though diminutive in stature (despite her platform sneakers), vocalist/MC Liliana Saumet commanded the audience with a powerful feminine presence that, amazingly, never detours into either pixie-princess or androgyny. Backed by band-founder Simon Mejia (bass), Julian Salazar (guitar/synthesizer), and Kike Eggurola (drums), Saumet – with her impeccable ability to rile the audience at just the right moments – led the band through dance-inducing numbers like “Fuego” as deftly as more atmospheric tunes, such as “Lo Que Tengo Que Decir”.
For 90-odd minutes, Bomba Estereo awed concertgoers not with blood and fire, but rather a distinctively reshuffled deck of human experience, demonstrating the notion that, often, travel is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder…