Live Review

The Flash Express and Andre Williams at Alexs Bar, Long Beach, Friday, May 5


Flash Express have been around for so many years that their set list is immutable—they got their songs about 2001 and add new material around each total eclipse, and they are so self-contained you can measure them only through microscopic differences of degree with their former younger selves. So tonight: looser than you'd like for a Friday night, plus strange new songs. Waters liked hip-hop before he played guitar, and that's why the Flash became the MC4+1, blown-out Detroit rock band that likes as much Sugar Hill as delta blues. New Flash snip a chorus from Newcleus in "Wild Like an Indian," which is fun to trainspot but doesn't match their signature "Beat That Kills," currently persisting toward timelessness.

They had a quick break and came back to back up Andre Williams, one of the last original rock & roll guys yet to come in from the woods. He's a story in himself: mostly a singer—a rough singer—Williams started writing his songs in the '50s with a few good lines on a napkin and a drumbeat he slapped out on his lap. In that way, maybe he did anticipate hip-hop a few decades early, though calling him the "first recorded rapper" for the droopy talk-drawl he used on "Bacon Fat" is like calling Johnny Cash the original punk rocker—it diminishes both sides of the comparison. Instead, Williams—like Ike Turner, who later apple-cored Andre down to a hundred pounds with a few brutal years of coked-up recording sessions, or like Kim Fowley, the second guy in line for everything good that happened up until hip-hop—was a great rock & roll recognizer, a musician who maybe didn't come up with the first idea but who saw right away what it could do. As he tells it, Chess, Checker and Motown all thought he could have been a millionaire, if only he wasn't so wild.

That's no good for a retirement package but it makes for some cozy comeback: Norton and In the Red Records rediscovered him in a gutter or something, and garage-rock found a new grandpa for the '90s, with an early incarnation of the Flash Express (then the Countdowns) even backing him on some of his first tours. Except . . . grandpa tired. Williams might have a rep as king sleaze—something he played up tonight by cooing about pussy to an audience including everyone you'd expect—but his earliest and best songs were wild more in spirit than sound, not the kind of thing you can stir back up just by buying a bigger amp (that distortion they had in 1955 was just because they recorded through soup cans).

The Cramps were pretty good about this kind of thing, when they were good: no chugga-chug guitar, no knobs on 10. That's strictly for heavy metal. And tonight it all went heavy metal, overcooked even further by too many flaming solos except for "Bacon Fat" (a slow, slinky song that sounded like it got lost on the way to some other band) and "Agile Mobile Hostile," a reliable old standard panting for restraint. That's not a word you usually see around Williams, but the spirit of 1956 was getting flattened.

There just wasn't any roll in the rock—no flutter in the dynamic, no move in the groove. Plus no "Jail Bait" or "Shake a Tail Feather," which make up about the best half of Williams' best-known output, and which are songs so good they should only be abandoned because of pending copyright dispute. It wasn't torture, but it was the kind of show that teases you to stick around till the end to see what happens and then—nothing much happens, except for people scooching out a little early. Williams played dirty-old-man on the mic between songs and even stripped off his shirt when the situation got too constricting—he looked good, no bypass scars—but then he started taking a lot of rests, retiring stage left to sit totally slack with one of the billion beers he got from the crowd. He even took a sit-down during a pretty elaborate guitar solo, looking up at the band waiting for them to finish—kinda said it all right there.

 
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