Saturday, September 10, 2016

Live at the Belly Up: The Drowning Men, Candye Kane (KPBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards I watched an intriguing episode of the KPBS local series Live at the Belly Up (that’s the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, one of the most intriguing local venues for live music but one I’ve never been to since the transportation problem would be just insuperable) which I was struck by on KPBS’s online schedule because it featured The Drowning Men and Candye Kane. The name “The Drowning Men” meant nothing to me but Candye Kane meant a great deal — only her appearance on a live music show was startling since she died in May 2016 (maybe a relatively unacknowledged music death in a year that’s already cost us David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Prince, but a major wrench to people in the local San Diego music scene) and it wasn’t clear when this was filmed. Her obituary at mentioned that she’d performed a New Year’s show at the Belly Up, though the show KPBS aired must have been a somewhat earlier one (but still relatively late in the day for Kane since the copyright date was 2014) and it took place, blessedly, during her brief late-in-life reunion with her killer piano player, Sue Palmer. I saw Candye Kane twice, both at San Diego Pride Festivals (actually the first one may have been the Hillcrest CityBeat instead, but I’m pretty sure it was at Pride and I know the second one was at Pride because Charles’ then-roommate Dennis was there with us and didn’t get Kane’s music at all while Charles and I grooved to it intensely), and the first time I bought her cassette Boogie Woogie Country Girl (after the last song, a great sex-changed version of Joe Turner’s 1955 R&B hit for Atlantic) at her merch table afterwards. (It’s an indication of how things were in the early 1990’s that she was still selling her music on cassettes, not CD’s.)

Both times we saw her Palmer was in her band, and her hot boogie piano playing (even though her “piano” was just the piano setting on an electric keyboard) was a major asset. Later, however, Kane and Palmer had an intense falling-out — even though they were only professional, not personal, partners, there was a lot of quite nasty emotion around the breakup — and it was only in Kane’s last years, after she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (but continued her career for eight years after her diagnosis despite being in almost constant pain), that she and Palmer made up and reunited for several gigs, including this one. Kane was also considerably slimmer than she’d been when she first emerged — though that was probably an unwelcome side effect of her disease — and among the songs she performed was “Superhero,” the title track of a 2009 album expressing her determination to live to the fullest despite being desperately ill. (Way to go, girl!) Kane had had a rather gloomy history; her birth name was Candace Hogan, and as the Union-Tribune obituary by George Varga noted, “At the time of her birth, Kane’s father was in jail for embezzlement. When she was 9, her mother taught her how to shoplift. An unwed mother at 17, Kane soon began making adult films and using intravenous drugs. But her life was, ultimately, an inspiring tale of survival, redemption and inspiration.” Indeed, her life got turned into an onstage musical called The Toughest Woman Alive in 2011 by the enterprising MOXIE Theatre in San Diego, with Kane not only writing the script but starring as herself.

Kane started out covering blues and R&B classics but soon branched out into original material in the same style; she kicked off this Belly Up appearance with a rather jaundiced song called “I’m the Reason You Drink,” then did “Superhero,” then did a pretty obvious knockoff of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” called “I Put a Hex on You,” then another one called “Scream in the Night” (when she sang the first word of the title it was literally a scream!), then the title song from her musical “Toughest Girl Alive,” and closed with a trademark song, “All You Can Eat (You Can Eat It All Night Long).” Kane’s performance was superb throughout — whatever she was feeling wasn’t reflected in the show, which was energetic and infectious as usual — and she had excellent support from Palmer, lead guitarist Laura Chavez (who was even bigger than Kane had been in her heyday and was wearing a red top and tight blue jeans that showed her in all her zaftig glory) and Kane’s son Evan Caleb Yearsley on drums. (Kane was one of those people who avoided any public proclamation of her sexual orientation, though it was pretty well known around town that she was Bi and I had always hoped she’d cover Julia Lee’s great 1940’s song “King Size Papa,” if only because she would have sounded so good delivering the line, “He’s the one in a million who can really keep me straight.”) I sat impatiently through the opening set by The Drowning Men waiting for Kane’s set to come on — they were joined by accordionist Matt Hensley of the band Flogging Molly (for whom The Drowning Men had opened on one tour) for three of their six songs, and I gave them points for using a theremin (it was front-and-center on stage throughout their set even though they only used it for their first and last songs), but when the lead singer/guitarist acknowledged the band’s debt to U2 it was all too obvious how much they were copying the Irish superstars. The manager of the Belly Up compared them to The Clash, but I didn’t think they sounded anything like the Clash except for attempting a political song as their last item — and it was something called “Courageous Son” that would have impressed me more if John Fogerty hadn’t done a much better “take” on the same concept in his Creedence days with “Fortunate Son.”