It had been three years since rock musician Tonio K.'s small but loyal legion of fans had seen its hero perform when he took the stage last week at the Coach House, but those on hand still knew to expect the unexpected. K.'s past shows were generally wild, unpredictable affairs, notable for furious, physical renditions of songs reflecting a cynic's-eye outlook on . . . well, just about everyone and everything.
After all, this is the guy whose song "H-A-T-R-E-D"--a hilariously vitriolic spew over a broken romance that was a KROQ radio favorite eight years ago--concludes with the on-stage machine-gunning of a cheap organ, and who once applied for (and received) an American Express Gold Card under the name of Vlad Theimpaler. He also has one as "Yo Mammy."
Still, many at the Coach House were probably caught short when K., who also plays Friday at the Roxy, informed them what they were in store for that night.
"I warned them that nothing was going to get broken this time," he related the day after the show. "It was no longer going to be the circus newly arrived in town with all the Dada weirdness. No props, no vacuum cleaners. I was just going to play songs with whatever comments came in between."
Obviously, a lot has changed about K. (born Steve Krikorian) since he last performed. Among the developments have been a burgeoning career as a songwriter (for the likes of Texan teen-dream Charlie Sexton), a happy marriage and a deepened sense of Christianity--not exactly things noted for prolonging active lives in rock 'n' roll. But it's clear from his latest album "Romeo Unchained" that though the presentation is a bit smoother, and a sense of faith in eternity and true love has emerged, it's still the same old Tonio.
Though the record was released through an arrangement between Christian-oriented What? Records and A&M, and distributed in both Christian and secular markets, no one will mistake it for a devotional album. Except for "You Will Go Free," a duet with T-Bone Burnett, there's little on the record that is overtly spiritual.
"There were a few letters from mom-and-pop Christian stores in the Deep South wondering what kind of Christian music this was," K. said. "To which What? responded that it was Christian in that it had to do with reality and it wasn't gospel and they shouldn't attempt to judge it as such. But actually the overwhelming number of letters from Christendom have been positive."
The next album might be another matter all together. The record's proposed title is "Too Cool to Be a Christian," and K. plans to use a cover painting by Neon Park of a classically rendered Jesus knocking at the door of the Disney-like three little pigs. Among the song titles: "I Know What These Women Want" and "I'm Supposed to Have Sex With You" (both part of the current live show).
K.'s old fans seem to have accepted the changes.
"Of the letters I've received from all over the country, and even some from Germany, it's been unanimous that everybody loved the record except for one letter," he said.
"It was from a girl in New Orleans or somewhere. She was just disappointed that it wasn't as violent as it used to be. I felt badly for her. She was apparently someone who was and still is very angry."
Though K.'s own anger has subsided some over the past few years, he still doesn't show much faith in mankind.
"I still expect the planet will be blown off its axis sometime in the 21st Century," he said. "But I have the spiritual optimism that even at a molecular level life doesn't stop there. Second-guessing the Apocalypse is gamey, even as a theological occupation, but statistically, between population, pollution, proliferation and whatever other 'p's you want to put in there, something's going to happen."