Jello's Silver Lining 

As Alternative Tentacles turns 25, Bush wins Biafra another four years of artistic cannon fodder.

It is a time for bright sides, silver linings, solace. As a guy who has spent the past three days road-raging through the Oakland streets with the New Pornographers' "Execution Day" on infinite repeat, I am not entirely confident I can deliver such. But let's try this: The election's outcome ensures plenty of inspiring material for Jello Biafra.

Expect a song entitled "The United States of Jesusland" any day now from the Bay Area's reigning, leering crown prince of poli-punk, finally freed from -- though ultimately pimp-slapped by -- his endless courtroom brawls with his no-longer-fellow Dead Kennedys. He's just a guy again, an artiste, free to resume his Green Party activism. Or his spoken-word career (how, exactly, has the Best of Both Worlds Biafra/Henry Rollins stadium tour not yet occurred?). Or his lordship over what is now Emeryville's finest music label, Alternative Tentacles, whose first 25 years was celebrated with a brawling soiree Halloween night at Slim's in SF, and headlined by without question Biafra's finest post-Kennedys musical project, a collaboration with the Melvins on the newly minted disc Never Breathe What You Can't See.

And there's Jello now, loping through Slim's in a "Stop Bush" T, gaudy fez, and gaudier bathrobe, amiably posing for pictures with gothed-up busty ladies as Comets on Fire take the stage. I figure this band could use the press. Jesus. Comets on Fire, Comets on Fire, everywhere everywhere Comets on Fire. Not that these dudes don't justify it: They play guitar-shredding dude rock for people who are afraid to enjoy guitar-shredding dude rock because of cultural stigmas -- performing every song with the endless jam-freakout veracity that lesser bands reserve solely for their last number. But for convenience' sake, tonight CoF's first song is their last, a twenty-minute psychedelic monolith that feels as if it lasts maybe five minutes.

I will say that I'm not buying this "Echoplex" business one bit -- the Comets' secret-weapon-instrument coup looks a whole hell of a lot like a dude twisting the "volume" and "bass" knobs on a car stereo back and forth vociferously whilst headbanging and wincing theatrically. Remember that guy who was "band dancer" for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones? Right.

Jello hops onstage and declares CoF "Blue Cheer on crack," before introducing the Fleshies, who basically sound like you on crack. These psychotic punks are responsible for the most amazing show I've seen all year: dank, super-dimly lit Berkeley warehouse, bare floor, zombie theme, godawful opening bands. Just pure glorious violence, the guitars more viciously tangible than the warehouse's walls, frontman Johnny No Moniker lashing out and leaping on various patrons in the near-pitch-blackness. Just unbelievable. The closest I've gotten this year to actual awe.

But now the Fleshies are on a proper stage, properly lit, and wearing matching green elf costumes: short pants, vests, funny hats with taped-on big-ass ears. "Straight outta Rivendell, motherfuckers!" Johnny screams as the first tune starts, and within 2.5 seconds he has leapt into the crowd -- the first of perhaps twenty times.

Now, watching an elf crowd-surf is absolutely delightful, as is witnessing Johnny pause midverse to slip one of his pointy green shoes back on. But this gig's legitimacy makes the band seem less menacing, and a proper sound system only exacerbates the spastic frontman's high-pitched (elfin?) squeak of a voice. Formal concert parameters do not suit this band's purposes -- they should appear, unexpectedly and terrifyingly, in your bathroom when you groggily swing open the door at four in the morning.

Slim Cessnas Auto Club should not. Biafra prefaces the introduction of this Colorado gothic alt.country outfit by praising Alternative Tentacles for "operating outside the mainstream industry" and practicing the whole no-band-on-the-label-sounds-like-another-band-on-the-label religion, and SCAC certainly underscores that, kicking off the first tune with a double banjo (!) setup, one played by a Stetson-wearing dude evidently dressed as Michael Stipe's emaciated skeleton. But though the band manages a few fire-and-brimstone moments of Nick Cave preacher menace, the rest is too contrived and ostentatious to rival, say, the Handsome Family.

The Bellrays are, per usual, infinitely more authentic, single-handedly justifying "punk soul" (while wearing Star Trek uniforms!) as marvelously Afroed frontwoman Lisa Kekaula spends most of the set admonishing motherfuckers who had their arms crossed. An unhealthy excess of noodling interludes, however, leave the band's exhilarating "rock 'n' soul" choruses short-changed and short-lived, although the bassist (who looks exactly like Garth from Wayne's World) and drummer (who is awesome) provide the evening's first true virtuoso performances.

Enough of all that. It's time for Jello, who staggers spastically across the stage, executing those peppy little pantomimes of his, and vacillates between fantastic showmanship and Aw Geez Dad Get Off the Stage antics. But this is hardly the point: With the Melvins behind you, you could sit up there knitting a sweater or playing canasta and still look like a badass. Yes, Biafra's choice of collaborators for his comeback is ingeniously inspired. The Melvins are pretty much just ridiculous, impossibly low and heavy and monolithic and rapture/Rapture-inducing. Overwhelming Jello onstage is not exactly a cakewalk, but the dude has to conjure up Bob Pollard-levels of histrionic frontman goofiness to even register.

But for those scheming to discount Jello's musical legacy as his loudmouth legacy grows, "California Über Alles" is a fantastic slap in the face, a classic capable of changing the world, if not destroying it. And thanks to the Melvins, the new material (particularly the SUV love letter "Yuppie Cadillac") doesn't sound ridiculous mixed in with DK classics -- just a little longer, a little heavier.

A small musical victory preceding, two days later, a devastating defeat for Biafra's American vision. But he still has AT -- Sunday's rough spots couldn't sully one of the most delightedly random labels around, and now Jello is once again a functioning weapon in his own arsenal. We are now ensured, if nothing else, of a multitude of targets at which Mr. Biafra can aim. On Execution Day, he emerged the true victor.

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