The Mooney Suzuki at St. Andrew’s Hall
Detroit, July 8, 2004
Sammy James looked uncomfortable. Robbed of his trademark sunglasses, goosed up in an ascot and hippie paisley, and saddled with selling unheard songs to a halfhearted crowd, James was about as far from an electric sweat as a cool guy from New York could get. He was a prisoner inside his own muttonchops, and it was only the first song.
Something was damaged from the moment the Mooney Suzuki took the St. Andrews stage Thursday night. Their backline was impeccably vintage – Vox, Orange, Ampeg – but even in the raucous riffs of “Right About Now,” the visceral electricity that had once defined live Mooney was thoroughly and painfully absent. Painful for the faithful gathered, certainly. But, more distressingly, the combo seemed stunted, stripped of their vitality. Where once there was leather was now covered in pinwheels and orange; great swaths of pink and brown cloth made the quartet look like “Hullabaloo” hopefuls dressed by clueless network executives. The opening medley of rockers from People Get Ready and Electric Sweat seemed scarily forced, as if guns were trained on their groupies just offstage. “Play the show or she gets it, see?” The only comfort during what should have been amazing was that old black Mooney banner with its four upraised number ones. It was a relic now, but a heartening reminder all the same. Was there still hope for one of the greatest live acts of the past few years?
Though their acquisition by Columbia caused a needlessly pink reissue of Sweat, last July’s discovery of the Mooney’s work with the Matrix was weird and a little shocking. OF COURSE the band deserved major label recognition – they’d been road dogs for over two years, and it’s not like Estrus and Gammon are known for spectacular health care plans. But flirting with the Matrix seemed so foreign, so…complicated. It was one thing for the production team to tackle and reshape Liz Phair – she seemed to be enjoying her makeover. But as basic and revivalist as it was, the Mooney Suzuki’s garage revolution of Nuggets reference and old Who adherence was striking in its purity. It didn’t need the Matrix’ pop reload.
Still, benefit of the doubt, right? The creation of a grand album is a move right out of the rock and roll handbook that’s been the Mooney Suzuki’s career template anyway. And there’s a great concept lurking in the smog, full of Phil Spector overtones and Robert Evans decadence. Cool New York band bamboozles big label into giving them a huge budget. They hire outrageously expensive, famously controversial producer(s), known for a wildly successful signature sound. Fuckery follows. Bowls of pills, hotel room bills, and towering piles of incredible gear. Benmont Tench overdubs. Trips to The Grotto and four months of backup singer auditions, all playing out on the sinful cocaine streets of LA. When the album’s finished, it’s a misunderstood gatefold epic, a Village Green Preservation Society for the ages. But all anyone wants is something else, by the band they used to love.
Alive & Amplified, due August 10, certainly seems like that grand album. Every single song bursts with arrangements and ideas. Cuts like “Legal High,” “Primitive Condition,” and “Loose ‘N’ Juicy” blow the Mooney Suzuki shtick sky high – “Gonna blow my speakers and my mind!” – with a raft of digitally fuzzy effects and hard drive revivalism. And, it must be noted, “New York Girls” rips off The Go shamelessly. But even if the Matrix’ sonic expansion and proven knack for hook tweaking eventually scores the Mooney a ride on the cash and free pussy express, on Thursday night at St. Andrews it wasn’t helping. As hokey as the band’s overdone bravado used to be, it was a still an endearing piece of their furious live show. Now, clad awkwardly in Lenny Kravitz’ hand-me-downs, their timed leg kicks and to-the-letter Jaggerisms were stilted components in a glaring new context. The Mooney’s act had been an organic thing, built from influence but fueled by irrefutable rock power. But whether by Columbia directive or the band’s own doing, they’d become mawkish stand-ins. Who switched on Zoo TV in the garage?
The set continued, with occasional flashes of the old fury. But the smallish crowd could barely muster a few “Fuck Yeah!”s in response, and by mid-set the whole thing just seemed like the motions-going for all involved. James tried to explain how shitty playing unknown material can be, both for bands and fans. And to their credit, the Mooney only did Amplified‘s strongest songs. But new material or old, the quartet was just flat. A strange mixture of disorientation and anger had set in by the end of the set, and the infamous, now seemingly-branded amplifier climbing routine. As a result the act seemed rote, like the cabinet gymnastics were only to fulfill a subsection of their contract that demanded amp-jumping, hand-clapping, and the drummer doing the worm. The bad idea obligatory encore included a run through “School of Rock,” but on Thursday night at least, the kids from that movie had a million more watts of heart than the Mooney.
Those that can’t teach teach gym.