Wednesday, December 20, 2006

White Cowbell Oklahoma at Lee's Palace, Saturday December 15/06

Toronto Chainsaw Massacre

In what might be a new seasonal tradition, White Cowbell Oklahoma played a Christmas show at Lee's Palace last Saturday. They were sharing the bill with Montreal prog-punk veterans Grim Skunk who haven't been seen on a Toronto stage in years.
Last year's Christmas 'Cowbell show at the El Mocambo featured plenty of the same stage act complete with Santa's giant juice-shooting prosthetic ahem, appendage, but a few repeated gags can be forgiven at a festive gig like this. Besides, this year they were joined by Grim Skunk who played to a good sized crowd given they went on stage by around ten p.m.
By the time White Cowbell Oklahoma hit the stage with a typically grandiose entrance, Lee's was packed. Five guys flailing away at various guitars and bass guitars led the group through a rousing opening song about getting high. By the end of the song, there were about a dozen people up on stage, including a judge and a couple of strippers prancing around the band. The judge was to preside over a trial between good (White Cowbell Oklahoma who love broads, booze and boogie) and evil (Satan representing the music business). The strippers were doing their thing. Although the simulated-lesbian-dominatrix-stripper schtick is a well worn cliche, the crowd loved it, and the White Cowbell Cowgirls (Cowbelles?) were happy to oblige. Much of the band's success derives from their visually charged stage act, which is at least amusing to even jaded members of the audience. They have Chainsaw Charlie sawing cowbells on stage with sparks flying everywhere, and a supporting cast of characters from Santa to a snowman, to the afore-mentioned judge and Satan himself to round out the band's already hefty stage presence.
White Cowbell use a lot of imagery associated with poor white American Southerners to present a raucus take of a religious revival meeting held in a strip club. They have southern-sounding pseudomnyms, they do interviews "in character" and dress like redneck extras from some lost Dukes of Hazard episode. While they are an obvious spoof of Southern Rock in the spirit of Spinal Tap, one wonders if the joke is on the audience- at least those who bought their trucker hats and bowling shirts at Urban Outfitters. White Cowbell Oklahoma is an odd but enjoyable mix of parody and sincere appreciation of seventies Southern and British rock.
They play better than spoof acts normally do, but their songs rarely stick out amongst each other. They all borrow liberally from the same early seventies English and American hard rock, with that Southern accent. Their flashier tunes, the ones where they can line up the various guitar players like Hollis on double-neck, the Sergeant, Clem (the band's main interviewee if not its leader) and the ebulliant Arland Stillwell III, all wailing at once, worked really well on stage. Anything less excessive would have sounded like a house band in some biker bar scene in a movie. While I haven't heard their c.d. "Casa Diablo", listening to White Cowbell Oklahoma without watching their stage antics wouldn't be the same. Luckily, they have a d.v.d. available, too.
Every few songs, the mock trial of the band versus the devil resumed, with the rightly dishonourable Judge interrupting the assorted guests running and gyrating around the stage and amplifiers. The band would start vamping on the introduction to Deep Purple's "Highway Star" (led by keyboard player Jesse, complete with what looked like Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord's floppy hat) until the trial recessed- they never did play the whole song, but we would hear more Deep Purple yet. The band wrapped up their set with their catchiest song, the charmingly meat-headed "Put The South In Your Mouth". Of course, the packed house demanded more, and the band was ready to oblige. They called members of Grim Skunk on stage to join them for an encore of "Space Trucking". Of course, nobody could surpass Deep Purple in over-doing this song. Anyone who has heard Purple on a twenty-five minute blow-out of their stage finale "Space Trucking" knows it ranks with "Dazed and Confused" for the most over-blown cock rock classic on any live album. White Cowbell Oklahoma's take of this seventies staple was spare by comparison, but still well worth the effort. Most of the audience left the show happy as soon as the song was over and the house lights came on. Surprisingly, after about fifteen minutes, the 'Cowbell returned for one last encore which caught the remaining crowd off-guard.
White Cowbell Oklahoma put on an entertaining concert, regardless of whether they are joking around or taking themselves seriously. Although their stage act is as important as the music itself, White Cowbell Oklahoma are not to be confused with some Weird Al Yankovic take on southern rock. The clearly appreciate the genre's music and they are eager to laugh at its excesses. The parody would wear thin very quickly if they were simply joking around and weren't playing well; imagine watching Sha Na Na playing a ninety minute set. White Cowbell Oklahoma seem to be courting true fans of southern rock as well as the trendier 'Everything Should Be An Ironic Joke' crowd. Holding on to both groups should be a challenge. In the mean time, they put on one hell of a show, that, ahem, most anybody can sure 'nuff enjoy.

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