Review: Itchy-O at 3 Kings Tavern, 12/31/11
A number of people at this show had no idea what Itchy-O was about. So when one of the uniformed cadre of musicians, his arms lit up with a short row of lights, went running through 3 Kings just prior to the performance, he was missed by some. And then, when the sulfurous vapors from the smoke bombs filled the room along with the haze, a few people still didn't know exactly what was happening. A voice processed by vocoder to sound like a really bad voice box helped usher in the procession of the band with Larry the Lion in tow. The purple-garbed, studded-masked throng that was Itchy-O then walked to the center of the 3 Kings dance floor amid throbbing electronic sounds, like a party-crashing ritual procession.
A green light cast a glow on the band and audience, which were both immersed in a haze of smoke, and a white light created a cascade of streams off the disco ball on the ceiling. This added an even deeper layer of visual otherworldliness and disorientation to the show and the music, which was further enhanced by the fact that most of us were crowded in around the band as it got to the music proper.
Trying to describe individual songs in this climate couldn't convey the visceral impact of the music. It had an organic yet somehow composed sound, with a North African and Middle Eastern flavor in the percussion and in general, like Savage Republic expanded beyond its normal range.
In response, people were jumping up and down and dancing like they were at some kind of Voodoo ceremony during Mardi Gras. With pretty much a full drum-corps ensemble playing a hybrid of marching-band music and avant-garde who-knows-what, Itchy-O really brought out the kind of excitement in people that you rarely see at a show.
Itchy-O's version of the Normal's "Warm Leatherette" was a darker, more industrial take on the song, and somewhere in there it sounded like the band did its powerful remake of Crash Worship's "Wild Mountain." After "Warm Leatherette," like a tide washing out, the band receded out the back just before midnight.
After midnight, Itchy-O came back on with three members of Taiko Society set up at the back of the stage. After a brilliant display of the expanded percussion lineup, most of the band sat down on the floor, and Larry the Lion came on stage holding a huge bottle of grog, Xs clearly marked on the label, and drank it down.
Apparently a drunken lion dance was in order, so the huge Chinese lion, eyes lit up, kicked out its legs, leapt, rolled, kicked its legs into the air while on its side and otherwise engaged in some wild dancing, all while Taiko Society provided a lively, nearly tribal beat. Then Larry left the stage, and most of the drum corps took to the stage and joined in with the Taiko Society to create an even more complex, vivid, layered beat, forming a U-shape that Larry, coming back through the crowd, went into for some more dancing.
That's when the sound really got hectic: Itchy-O created the densest and most frenzied rhythms of the show while Taiko Society seemed to leap up and down while hitting its drums with a palpable vigor. It was pure sonic bedlam that really didn't need any amplification, and it made for a great way to pound the old year out and introduce the new one.
Earlier in the evening, Action Friend kicked off the show. The band went on a little early, which gave it more time to lay out its richly textured music without having to rush. This band has a way of making even its set songs seem like a fresh improv session. But much of the material came from its excellent 2011 album For You the World.
Jeremy McLean had on a pink cap topped by what was clearly supposed to be a penis -- which was an inspired bit of subtle self-deprecation. Paul Alexander wore a red bowling shirt with a yellow bandana and seemed to be emulating the sartorial affectations of Bun E. Carlos in a relaxed mood, while Aaron Holtzer was in what looked to be some kind of bullfighter's outfit sans cape.
The music of Action Friend is also a bit difficult to describe because it's so varied and shifts at will during each song. The outfit is great at making repetition a tool to launch into completely different sonic territory with playfully aggressive passages. It's also adept at creating quiet measures characterized by an almost wistful mellowness, punctuated by an eruptive, slashing, hyperactive sound that's equal parts Naked City and the Locust or Hella.
While this sort of thing probably drives some people crazy, it's clear that these musicians have found a way to entertain themselves, exploring all the sounds they love while trying to somehow make it all accessible. A lot of musicians with chops are boringly self-indulgent; Action Friend doesn't suffer from this egotistical peculiarity.
On songs like "No Girl Hot Cum," it sounded like McLean was using a piccolo instead of a guitar. The crunchy Page Hamilton-esque guitar sounds of "Demonskull" and the jazzy interludes were beautifully juxtaposed without sounding like the band was trying too hard -- mainly because these guys have mastered how to shift rhythmic gears and atmospheres on a dime without sounding too busy. "Aren't You Scrumptious?," with its frenzied bursts of sound, was like experiencing some kind of psychotic break, in part because of the meditative bits of the song torn apart in unpredictable moments.
With this show, it became even more clear that Alexander's dynamics really hold the music together, like the tension is within the songwriting and its release into chaos is in his hands, just waiting to be unleashed by the downbeat. The patchwork of death-metal jazz, downtempo surf, jittery prog and the whole host of its other sounds blended into one cohesive whole seemed to be executed perfectly for this show and proved to be the appropriately sonically weird introduction to the night.
Personal Bias: I'm a fan of anyone willing to put in the effort to do something as weird and cathartic as Itchy-O. Managing the logistics and personalities involved alone is mindboggling. Random Detail: Ran into Mark Shusterman of Nyota, formerly of Widowers. By the Way: Despite it being New Year's Eve, no one seemed to be more out of line than any other Saturday night at a crowded show in a small club.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.