Review: Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine at Summit Music Hall, 12/31/13

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JELLO BIAFRA & GUANTANAMO SCHOOL OF MEDICINE at SUMMIT | 12/31 As Jello Biafra strolled around the stage at the Summit, singing with real power and conviction while jumping around and gesturing dramatically, he displayed an almost superhuman level of energy and enthusiasm. A legend in his own right, Biafra delivered a show worthy of vintage era Dead Kennedys with his latest band, Guantanamo School of Medicine. Except for a couple of technical issues with the guitar rig, it was a powerful and inspirational performance beginning to end.

See also: Jello Biafra on the time he dressed up in his dad's clothes and paid a visit to Focus on the Family

When the Guantanamo School of Medicine took stage, the outfit played an instrumental, almost free-jazz punk passage before Biafra bounded on to stage for "The Terror of Tinytown." For the first part of the show, Biafra wore a "blood" stained lab jacket with "UNCLE SCAM" scrawled on the back with duct tape. That was one of three layers Biafra wore during the show. No matter what album the material for this set came from, the band performed it like it was written a month ago. This imbued each song with an electrifying sense of excitement. Even the Dead Kennedys song, more familiar to most people in the crowd, got the power treatment in this show.

After "The Terror of Tinytown," Biafra graciously thanked Joy Subtraction and Git Some and then said that TSOL had put on the best show he'd seen from the band since he saw them in Denver when the Kennedys came through playing with the Frantix. While most of us didn't have that frame of reference, TSOL's set lived up to his assessment. For "New Feudalism," Biafra took off the lab coat and exposed an American flag shirt that someone had given to him in Pueblo after a spoken word show.

Guantanamo School of Medicine has three fine albums under its belt, which meant the group had plenty of material from which to draw, along with some Dead Kennedys' songs, obviously, which many of us were hoping to hear. Needless to say, nobody was disappointed when we got the first one with an altered version of "California Über Alles" with the lyrics changed to reflect recent changes.

It was so spot on and powerful, you'd have to be numb to not be swept up in the spirit of the moment. Biafra even came off the stage to crowd surf a bit at the end while still singing. Hardly any punk singers of his age and stature do this sort of thing, but with this show, Biafra showed that in terms of frontmen he has few peers. That song was followed by "Brown Lipstick Parade," one of White People and the Damage Done's best and most intense songs, and it wasn't toned down here.

Of course, Biafra took much deserved shots at the prison industrial complex, the corporatist concessions of the Obama regime, fracking and the Tea Party in between songs, but it never really seemed preachy. More to the point, the whole show proved that pretty much all of Biafra's songs from the Dead Kennedys era until now have something salient to say while not skimping on the musicality. The fact that you can't really knock any of the songs on their pure musical merit is very striking.

The set would have ended with "Pets Eat Their Master," but the band came back out for two encores without showing a sign of wear. Beginning with the horrific "The Cells That Will Not Die," the group went into "Holiday in Cambodia," and just when we were sure nothing could be added to such a strong closing, the guys came back on and treated us to "Too Drunk To Fuck," a tune entirely appropriate for New Year's Eve for some people, and transitioned from that theatrically into "Crapture." Things got done late but you just didn't care because these guys sustained the energy and brought you along for the ride.

Joy Subtraction opened the show. While the threesome is always worth your time, this showing was especially compelling. Some people tried to give the guys shit by saying how they suck, and both Abe Brennan and Brian Polk deflected the declarations of disrespect, likely delivered by friends, ably. The band has an admirable ability to turn some jazz and noise concepts directly into its own, pretty original, take on punk rather than playing the standard faire that has made way too much punk stale.

There's certainly nothing stale about Joy Subtraction. Between Brennan's excellent melodic and incandescently cutting guitar and Polk's and Dave Lamothe's wide ranging yet imaginative and heavy hitting rhythms, it's just difficult to put these guys into a punk box. The group played some of its best originals, such as "Dignity Is a Luxury" and "Kill the Blue Dogs." But the band also performed "Fun Fun Fun" by the late, great, Big Boys. Hardly anyone covers Big Boys because hardly anyone really can.

Git Some, which hasn't exactly been active over the last year and more, was up next. Instead of atrophying in the down time, it looked like the quartet had been saving up some of its strength for this show. Luke Fairchild seemed happy to be playing in front of people even as his words dipped deep into the depths of psychic darkness. Chuck French and Neil Kenner coiled themselves around the seething music and made it dance with the aid of the new drummer.

Describing Git Some accurately in words is a challenge, but French sounds like he's pulling the sounds out of the guitar rather than merely playing it; Keener creates a roiling rhythm and pulse that compliments French's sometimes tortured yet beautiful squall, as Fairchild channels a feral, dark poetry, like the avatar of a trickster god, with the drums keeping things on track. It's stoner psych punk -- which may seem an odd description, given Fairchild quasi-bemoaning the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and the people it will bring to the state, driving up rents and soaking up jobs.

TSOL came on stage looking like guys who might play in some lounge band at a hotel. But when they opened the set with fiery "World War III," all such nonsense about image and what music comes from it flew out the window. A good chunk of the set came from the act's newer albums, but the energy these guys put into the show came off as a great band playing its best material. Probably not everyone knew the songs, but no one seemed to care because all the songs were good, and TSOL played it all like it loved every song.

"Man and Machine" and "Terrible People" were both particularly compelling. Before "Fuck You Tough Guy," Jack Grisham told us how when TSOL used to play house shows the police would come by and they weren't scared of the fast songs but they were freaked out by the slow, creepy songs. "Wash Away" was a most welcome surprise from the more post-punk/goth-oriented 1982 album Beneath the Shadows.

But it's not as though TSOL really had much of a standard punk sound. One of the most interesting sides of the music was how the guitar tones had a bit of a glittery, moody vibe, even as they engaged in some aggressive riffing alongside rhythms that didn't sound like the standard punk deal either. The songs were excellent enough, but the sonic dimensions of TSOL were unexpectedly imaginative, while also having some grit and bite to it. And Grisham, the consummate frontman, was able to be both poetic and profane when he engaged the audience.


Personal Bias: I've been a Dead Kennedys fan since hearing "Holiday in Cambodia" for the first time in the late '80s. And after listening to most of his spoken word albums multiple times while working as a security guard in the '90s, I became a big Jello Biafra fan apart from his music. Also, like many people who grew up in the '70s and '80s, I saw Suburbia and became a fan of TSOL from that. Random Detail: Brian Polk was wearing his Alice Donut t-shirt. Sartorially-speaking, that made him the coolest guy in the room. By the Way: Everyone put on a superlative show. It's rare for a New Year's Eve show to be this thoroughly enjoyable.

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