October 31, 2011 | 7:16am
Oct. 29, 2011
City National Grove of Anaheim
To see Tiger Army play songs like "Cupid's Victim" off Tiger Army II: Power of Moonlight Saturday night at the Grove was to see the band at its best. The song, a fine example of the trio's rockabilly-meets-punk sound, features singer Nick 13 at his crooniest--lending a soft, Gothic edge to the aggressive chugging of his guitar and the gallop of the drums.
Let's face it: It's the genre's romantic pastiche that inspires girls to don uncomfortable stilettos and vintage skirts while guys put significant time into coiffing meticulous pompadours and Mohawks to revive a bygone culture.
The problem with Tiger Army is that they're outclassed by other acts in the genre who put on vastly more entertaining live shows. This isn't to say fans were underwhelmed by the Saturday performance. In fact, many demonstrated their enthusiasm for the band by crafting costumes, including one guy with a prosthetic feline nose.
Tiger Army took the stage to deafening applause as Hank Williams' "Angel of Death" played over the PA. Clad in all black attire--sleeveless dress shirts and camouflage tiger-stripe face paint, the trio launched into "Nocturnal" off their 1999 self-titled album.
True to form, the band attacked the song, with much of the rockabilly sonics coming from Jeff Kresge's upright bass and the rapid-fire drumming of James Meza. In between choruses, Kresge loosed a wicked howl as the audience shouted the chorus "We came from nowhere" while thrusting their fists in the air. People also went nuts for a cover of Eddie Cochran's "20 Flight Rock," and the blistering pace of "Incorporeal" off Tiger Army II saw the pit seething. But for most of the evening, it was the audience who brought the A game.
Early on, Nick 13 had volume issues with his git box, which was dialed low in the mix. This had an added effect on his vocals which struggled to hit the pocket. After the opening numbers, the set fell into a routine with the voxman frequently adjourning from the front of the stage to tune his guitar while Kresge offered stone-faced mandates to the audience asking for more noise.
The allure of rockabilly shows lie in the gimmickry of its stars--a level of gimmickry that Tiger Army doesn't truly deliver. It's not enough to wear greasepaint and play fast.
Witness psychobilly icon Reverend Horton Heat. His shows are predictable and feature singer Jim Heath and company rehashing the same jokes. But the band consistently produces mind-blowing entertainment to marvel at, usually through virtuosic playing. Heath brings considerable finesse to the stage and expertly rocks a sound which vacillates between nimble fret work and explosive punk energy. It may seem trite to some to see the man wailing away while standing atop an upright bass, but come on, he's pushing 60.
Compared to Heath, or even other rockabilly personalities (Big Sandy, Mojo Nixon, DropKick Murphys) Tiger Army fall flat. Nick 13, though competent with an ax, lacks finesse and uses his Gretsch guitar to produce sounds composed chiefly of palm-muted strumming and simple, spooky-cinema licks. His instrument, with its distinctive tremolo, isn't used to maximum effect and suffers from his ham-fisted playing.
Then there's his voice. It lacks range. Though there's an element of Ricky Nelson melancholy in those pipes, it's wafer-thin and a step above monotone. And melodically, it's hard not to draw comparisons to Davey Havok of AFI.
People come to rockabilly shows looking to be dazzled, and the greatest artists of the genre tend to play with the swing of classically trained bluesmen. Unfortunately, Tiger Army does it with the hack of lumberjacks. Still, judging by the audience's reaction, they manage to get the job done.
The Crowd: Girls rocking stilettos and vintage hairdos. Guys in flannels with super-slick manes. One dude hoisted the highest mohawk I've ever seen. It needed red lights to warn low flying planes. Many wore face paint styled after Día de Los Muertos designs.
Overheard: Three extremely intoxicated girls singing the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to do is Dream."
Random Notebook Dump: A military guy was standing watch at the venue's entrance. Is the government collecting intel on the rockabilly scene? Is America going to invade Johnny's Saloon in HB? Discuss.