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Sex, Drugs and Sesame Street

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Eight people, all dressed in striped pants or striped shirts, sing solemnly with their eyes shut to the dimly lit Mission District street. Only the stomp of their feet back up the melodic chant, “Capital I, cap-i-tal I. Capital I, cap-i-tal I.” While the spectacle might seem almost cultish, it is just the Dead Hensons preparing for their set, practicing one of their favorite Sesame Street songs, “Capital I.”

The band’s live show includes a number of other classic Muppet and Sesame Street songs, everything from Kermit the Frog’s famous “Rainbow Connection” complete with tap-shoe solos by Karinanne Jones, the group’s drummer and washboard player, to Sesame Street’s “The Ladybug Picnic.” Genres deviate from rock and roll, to jazz, to soul, to hillbilly and more. If Jim Henson’s creatures sing it, so do the Dead Hensons.

The newer Brian Henson Muppets and Sesame Street songs, are another story though, “The modern version just doesn’t have the same feel,” says singer and spoon player Erica Johnson. Fortunately, the older shows and movies have provided a plethora of songs to choose from.

With thousands of different options, the band tries to select “the ones that are most kick ass,” says guitarist and banjo player Scarold P. Victim. Band members suggest songs they remember from childhood or particularly enjoyed from recently viewed tapes of the old shows, then they decide whether or not it rocks enough to be put on the Dead Hensons’ set list.

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Like many American children, the members grew up watching both The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and The Muppet Movie. About a year and a half ago, Ryan Beebe, now 24, decided to take a step back into his childhood and start a Muppet cover band. He asked a couple of friends, and soon, the Dead Hensons were born.

The result was a smiling group of childish adults with a base drum full of stuffed animals and heads full of caffeine and liquor. The rocking songs manage to hook audiences with catchy beats and easy to remember songs. Because the children’s songs were written to be easy to learn and sing along to, even the less-remembered tunes are easy to sing along to, with lyrics as literally as simple as counting to ten.

Older men dressed in all leather, chubby computer nerds, college-aged hipsters are some of the many different types of people found dancing until their sides hurt at The Dead Hensons’ shows.

The strangely successful combination of innocent childhood memories and drunken rock and roll fun has enabled the band to book shows with some of the most unique groups in the country. Their first concert was as an opening act for Captured! By Robots, a one-man band with robots play drums, horns and other instruments. Other line-ups involved the hardcore polka band Polkacide, Power Ranger themed P Lander Z, and Schwarzenegger mockers Arnoldcore.

Even their fans can be strange, when the 8 piece band went on its first tour to L.A., audience members showed up wearing full Muppet costumes. “It’s cool that people got excited, and it was a little freakish. But it got us excited and in the mood,” says Johnson.

Real Cool Women Have Curves

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

A tattooed vixen slides her hand up her voluptuous corseted body, fondles her large breast hidden under a shirt that reads “I fuck groupies,” and moans in a low, throaty voice, “all women are bad.” She licks her teeth, shakes her head of blonde Marilyn Monroe curls and sways her hips to the slow jungle beat. She is in control. She is hot. And it’s not body size, but self-confidence that makes her steam.

She grew up in Wisconsin, the daughter of a small town minister and an adoring mother. On the surface, it’s hard to believe Miss Eva Von Slut became the Burlesque star, and punk bitch she is today. Yet it is easy to see Von Slut’s mother planted a seed of self-confidence that grows to this day. “My mom loved us so much. I never really thought there was anything I couldn’t do,” says Von Slut, who does as she pleases no matter how many people tell her no.

As a child, Von Slut, who insists upon using her professional name after receiving many strange letters from prison inmates who have seen her in tattoo magazines, never fantasized about being a mother like many girls her age. Her daydreams about the future, revolved around fame and fortune. Never thinking of a specific career, only one thing defined her life goal, “I wanted to be adorned and worshiped,” she says.

Now 29, the pale, curvy temptress frequently feeds off the energy from her fueled up audiences. Whether stripping down to boobie tassels and a corset for her burlesque act, singing in the all-girl psychobilly band, Thee Merry Widows, or acting as a “hired gun” vocalist for one of her favorite high school bands, the Insaints, that childhood dream is coming true.

Von Slut seems to ooze self-assurance on stage and off. “When I saw her, she had this aura of confidence around her, like she didn’t really care what others thought,” says Michael Baula, who saw Von Slut perform at the Insaints cd release party.

Her pride in her body and vivacious attitude allow her to reach a level of sexiness few women even aspire to. She became attracted to burlesque by the entertainment’s complete acceptance and adoration of all women of all sizes. After seeing Dirty Martini and The World Famous Bob perform at a burlesque convention, Von Slut connected to the two plus-size blondes. “They were so sexy and into themselves,” she remembers, “there was no question [Bob] was proud of her body.”

Since taking up the profession, Von Slut has dedicated one of her favorite acts to a childhood idol, famously voluptuous Mae West. In the 1920′s stick-like figures in short loose dresses were the epitome of style, but “she went against fashion. She wore very Victorian style clothing that was more tailored to her body,” says Von Slut, who wears an outrageously large ostrich plumed hat and white fur during her homage.

She shimmies her body with pride whenever on stage, even stripping down while singing in her bands. “I think the amount of self confidence she has made her very capable,” says Nishone Weymouth, who plays guitar in Thee Merry Widows while Von Slut sings, “She knows she can do burlesque. She knows she can front a band. It takes a lot of self confidence to do that.”

Von Slut’s onstage antics in the all-girl psychobilly group includes much suggestive behavior, everything from licking a Theremin, an instrument with an antenna that emanates creepy noises as things move closer and further from it, to pulling her skirt to her waist and bending over for a spanking. Surprisingly, her behavior in Thee Merry Widows is restrained compared to what she does in The Insaints.

As a teen, Von Slut loved The Insaints so much she trained her voice after the singer, Marion Anderson. Back in the early nineties, the band was gaining much notoriety in the Bay Area, in part for an infamous “banana incident” where Anderson was arrested for “going all the way” with the phallic fruit on stage. The band broke up in 1993 though, leaving a full album of both live and studio recordings missing and unreleased.

Anderson died of an overdose in 2001. Two years later, Insaints guitarist, Daniel deLeon, got a call from a sound engineer who rediscovered the lost tracks. After deciding to release the songs and do a show, he thought back to a Thee Merry Widows demo cd he had heard where Von Slut’s voice was near identical to Anderson’s. She was hired.

She refuses to copy Anderson’s acts, believing it would be disrespectful to mimic her behavior. Yet Von Slut isn’t afraid to do things with the group girls in Thee Merry Widows would never let her get away with. “I have a little more leeway to be crazier with the Insaints,” she explains. Von Slut and a number of strippers from the Lusty Lady did a burlesque act during the show, part of it involved bananas in memory of Anderson.

Onstage, Von Slut is not the same girl as the one that works at a tattoo shop on Haight Street and goes out to drink with friends. “On stage, I’m this very sexual and crazy person, but I have a real life to lead,” she laughs before taking a sip of iced coffee at The Horseshoe cafĂ©. She raises it to her ruby lips with her right hand, the word “dead” spelled on the knuckles in drippy red and black writing.

Tattoos are another major aspect of Von Slut’s life, both for providing her with a job and getting her picture and name out through tattoo magazines like “Skin and Ink,” “Tattoo,” “Hardcore Ink,” and “Skin Deep,” to name a few. Some of her most featured tattoos are the Elvis angel and devil on her chest, a friend jokingly suggested she get the piece tattooed without realizing she actually would, and a whole back piece dedicated to popular punk band The Misfits, whose songs revolve around B-rate horror movies.

It seems only natural the punk singer has rock tattoos. Music has always been an important aspect in her life. It is the main reason she ended up moving to San Francisco.

After bouncing from place to place, she lived in New Orleans for about a month, when a traumatic break up brought about a need for somewhere really different. She attended the Las Vegas Rock Around and came out to the Bay to catch some of the many after shows. “I moved here for rock and roll,” Von Slut says only partly joking. She never planned to stay for six years, but she would have a hard time leaving now.

That’s not the only time rock and roll changed her life. Always a horror film fanatic, “the first time I heard the Misfits was a definitive moment in my life,” says Von Slut, who discovered the band in her teens. She was thrilled to know there was a band out there singing about the things she was, and still is, into.

That B-rate film obsession can be easily seen in her San Francisco apartment. Walls are plastered with movie and rock memorabilia. Every surface not covered in records or clothes, shoes and other burlesque paraphernalia, has knickknacks all over it, Misfits toys included. Collecting horror movie memorabilia is her next favorite hobby outside of partying with friends. It’s even how she measures success.

“I know I’ll have made it when I have an Eva Von Slut action figure,” she says with a dreamy note in her voice and a distant look in her hazel eyes.

Put out then Get Out: The Teenage Harlots Give it All up Every Time

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

lantzillaIt could be any given Teenage Harlots show. Johnny Dismal, a brunette man in a black suit with a white tie, pushes and rolls along a line of audience members, some dancing, some standing with their arms folded. People wearing black arm bands with white crossbones shake and twist to the fueled up garage band as the singer gets drug along the floor by his ankles. One or two people take cheap shots at him, punching or kicking at him. He jumps right back up and starts screaming lyrics into people’s faces. In 15 minutes, the band played 15 songs and the set is through. They not only have more energy than just about any other band out there, they have it during every set.

The six-year-old group sounds like what would happen if surf guitar king Dick Dale smoked crack, bashed up his guitar a few times and crossed over to the punk side. Sometimes their shows are more punk, other times it’s more surf. Sometimes they perform on a huge stage; other times, it’s in a venue’s lobby while someone else sets up on the real stage. No matter what, “the normal Harlot’s show is always a good time. It’s high energy and the singer makes sure that there is a good show going on,” says Josh Langben, who has seen the band play four times in the last year.

At a party in the Oakland warehouse where scifi-rockabilly band The Phenomenauts’ live and rehearse, the Harlots joke so much it’s hard to tell when they’re not lying. It’s especially confusing when seemingly true stories consist of jumping into a moving vehicle to avoid an angry crowd of rednecks on speed.

Dismal bears a fresh boot mark on his cheek from a show just an hour ago. “I get punched and kicked a lot. People think it’s fun to take shots at me,” he says in between sips of alcoholic cider, “they think I’m crazy and can take it.”

Still, the consensus seems to be that tonight’s show went pretty well. They finished a full set in 15 minutes, made a huge mess with a giant bag of popcorn and the crowd loved it.

The average Teenage Harlets song only lasts about one minute and 15 seconds, and is probably a bit shorter live. It’s fast enough that the band can record a 7 inch LP with 16 songs, the same number of tracks as most full length records. “You think you’re listening to a full 12 inches,” jokes Chris Buzzell, the group’s guitarist.

The band’s bassist recently quit on good terms. Mike Slavinsky of the Coppertones is filling in while they search for a new player.

“It’s not how long we play our songs,” begins Slavinsky.

“It’s how long you can stand them,” jokes Atom Bomb, the group’s drummer, who claims he plays as fast as possible to get back to watching the show and consuming the free food and beer. He claims free admission and delicious treats as his true motivators to be in a band.

The Harlets hate headlining because playing last stops them from hanging out after the set. They prefer performing between bands in the confined lobby of the Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma. “It’s the best place to play. I don’t understand why people don’t like playing places like that. I want the audience playing in our band instead of these jerks,” Bomb says, pointing his beer at the three other members.

Previously published in Xpress Magazine. Creative Commons Licensed image courtesy of Flickr user lantzilla.