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Explosion Gives Blues a Tumultuous Twist

October 22, 1994|LORRAINE ALI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion played a show in Minnesota recently, the trio was confronted by an irate audience member.

"He was ranting. 'You're not a blues band. I've been playing blues for 20 years, and you're definitely not a blues band!' " recalls Jon Spencer, the trio's 29-year-old leader.

The incensed clubgoer was sort of right. The Blues Explosion doesn't hail from the Mississippi Delta or the smoky dives of Chicago. It emerged from New York's East Village, where noise bands and art schools are far more prevalent than hound dogs and rotting porches.

And the Blues Explosion doesn't play down-and-out blues in the tradition of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. Instead, singer-guitarist Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins (no bassist required) play a raw and tumultuous twist on the style.

It's such a musical mutation that Spencer doesn't even call it blues.

"The name of the band is ridiculous," says the New Hampshire native and former Brown University student. "We're not trying to pass ourselves off as a blues outfit. What the blues means to me is honest and direct music. It's also very simple. In that sense, then we're a blues band. But I would just say we're indie rock. That's where we came out of. That's our audience: punk rock."

Blues elements, from intermittent howls to sleepy grooves, do rear their heads in the flailing mix, but it's blended with '70s funk and sleazy, discordant rock.

It might aggravate blues purists, but the band, whose third album, "Orange," was released this month on Matador Records, has received plenty of positive reaction: intellectualized by critics, worshiped by trust-fund bohemians, just plain respected by underground rock fans nationwide.

Some of that audience may have crossed over from Spencer's previous affiliations with abrasive noise bands. He founded Washington's ear-bending Pussy Galore, which avoided melody like the plague, and New York's Boss Hogg, which turned Rolling Stones tunes into smoking piles of sonic rubble.

"I think there's some stuff that runs through both Pussy Galore and Blues Explosion," says Spencer, who brings his band to the Palace on Wednesday. "But with Pussy Galore, it was more about attitude. The Blues Explosion is more of a natural band, the songs just sort of come out of us playing."

The Blues Explosion started in 1991, four years after Spencer moved to New York from D.C. "I wanted to be in a more exciting place. I was into what was going on in New York and the East Village, what came after 'no wave' like the Swans, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch."

Spencer combined those influences with his more recent fascination with old bluesmen such as Hound Dog Taylor and came up with the Blues Explosion's sound. This rootsy tilt from the master of musical pileups initially alienated noise audiences, who were used to pure dissonance and clamor.

"The first year we played around New York, it was really out there and strange," recalls Spencer. "The audience just didn't know what was going on."

People eventually caught on.

Spencer is entirely aware of the band's hip value and the questions that it generates--mainly, can a Village boho really sing the blues?

"People say it can't be blues if it's not played by a depressed black person--and I mean depressed in the sense of economically," says Spencer. "I think music is music, it can happen anywhere."

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