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It Came From the Garage
Former Cramp and Bad Seed Kid Congo Powers steps out of the shadows and into the raw-rock revival
Kansas is the state that helped make Billy the Kid great, and on this night, it’s happy to make Kid Congo Powers happy. His newest album finished not 180 minutes ago in a recently un-abandoned high-school gymnasium-turned-recording studio in the speck-on-a-map town of Harveyville, where one of the great unreconstructed rock & roll guitarists of the past gnawed-raw hunk of the century can step into a classroom for probably the first time in 30 years and confidently explain over the phone just what the next best thing to dancing is. Which is fucking. And the next best after that is screaming. From those three points, you can triangulate the formidable discography of Kid Congo Powers, the kid from La Puente who did it all—or at least smiled widely as it happened right next to him.
He was a founding member of the Gun Club, but left as they were still playing to a handful of friends and girlfriends to join the Cramps. Lux and Ivy gave him the name Congo Powers after examining a magic hoodoo candle (of course). And after that, he was sidemanning Nick Cave in Berlin right after the wall toppled, and tangent in between were Lydia Lunch and Michael Gira and Ian Svenonius and Wim Wenders and on and on. Only recently for the first time—or, at least, most committed time—has he stepped out from the side of the stage to lead his very own band, the Pink Monkey Birds, who flapped down out of the deep Kansas sky to record their third and newest bent-soul album.
But he’s already thinking about what to do next. Part of that is endearing nervousness. “I always think, ‘This is the last time anyone’s gonna let me make a record!’” he says with a laugh. “I think, ‘Now I’m really done!’”
And the rest is what he says is inborn wanderlust, throbbing unfulfilled since teenage days when he first made friends with Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce by talking about the places they wished they could be instead. Ever since, he has tramped with guitar in hand from band to city to band. Ramblin’ on my mind, as a certain man once sang.
“I’ve cursed it, but I’m more blessed by it, I think. It keeps things all new for me. If I had any illusions of MAKING IT BIG,” Powers says, dropping his voice a hyperbolic octave, “I think I lost them a long, long time go. I was happy to do what I set out to do: explore new things, and make music that is different than other types of music, and say things in a different way, and see things in a different way. So that way, I feel a grand success!
“And,” he adds sotto voce, “right now, I’m enjoying quite some popularity!”
And he is—palanquinned atop this new garage revival with albums that snarl and shuffle like late-night sessions at Memphis’ Ardent studios, where anything got to make tape as long as someone mopped up the mess before the sun rose. This year’s Dracula Boots (on lately unstoppable label In the Red) casts Powers as more narrator than singer, with gravitas like Vincent Price’s and charisma like Iggy Pop’s over songs that stew classic garage and soul until they’re just the rich smell of meat and floating bones. (A cover of Thee Midniters’ “I Found a Peanut” unlocks some inspirations.) While bands such as Black Lips cover the similarly iconic Fred Cole, Powers is himself out there at the same festivals, peeling out sly and wild rock & roll all his own.
And though he’s a man who “has lived everywhere and learned you can be anything everywhere,” he maintains a long list of fantasies. Recording an album in a creped-up high-school gymnasium was a “particularly long-suffering one,” he says, itself throbbing unfulfilled since prepubescent days when sisters would go out giggling to high-school dances where thee actual Midniters were playing and Baby Congo Powers had to stay home and wonder. But now that’s off the list, so what’s next?
“Wow!” says Powers. “Jeez! Lord! Lord almighty! A good night’s rest—now that’s a fantasy!”
Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds with Slang Chickens, Haunted George, and DJs Frankie and Warren at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Wed., 9 p.m. $7. 21+.