Saturday, December 23, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: The Devastators, The Grass Heat (KPBS-TV, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Live at the Belly Up episode from 2013 which KPBS was re-running, featuring two bands which though not great were at least listening and entertaining. One was The Devastators, who presented themselves in the introduction and their interviews as a multi-genre band influenced by Carlos Santana, Michael Jackson and Prince, they’re really pretty much a hard-core reggae outfit who sound an awful lot like Bob Marley. Not only does their singer, bassist Ivan Garzon, sound a lot like Marley vocally, the songs they write are awfully Marley-esque, as one can tell from their ritles: “Frontline,” “Industrial Execution,” “Cool Off,” “Surrender” (their obligatory romantic ballad) and “You Possess.” They’re quite an appealing band — they don’t do much to “put on a show,” but then after all the pyrotechnics and gymnastics I’ve got from major artists on network music shows that’s actually something of a relief — they just do straight-ahead music, and I got to like them better as their set wore on even though I still wouldn’t consider them great. Besides Garzon, the other permanent band members are Alex Somerville (keyboards), Brian Teel (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), and John Allen (drums and backing vocals) — though last night they had a trombone and a tenor sax on some songs that took them back beyond reggae to ska.

I liked the other band on the bill, The Grass Heat, better; they’re a simple guitar-bass-drums rock trio — like the Devastators, their bass player, Chris Torres, is also their lead singer — he and the guitarist, Billy Joe Clements, worked together on several projects and they explained during the interviews for the show that in one band Chris is the leader, in one band Billy is the leader and in others they’re both sidemen for other performers. The Grass Heat (a name they picked simply because they thought it sounded good) is an appealing rock band harking back to the late 1960’s when bands like Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the early Led Zeppelin were beginning to hash out the formula for heavy metal but before metal became so aggressively ugly and loud. They opened with a peculiar cover of “All Shook Up” — yes, the legendary hit Otis Blackwell wrote for Elvis Presley — but they played so “off” Blackwell’s original melody it took me a while to realize this was indeed the same somg. Their approach to it came off as if Elvis had decided, with his career stuck in a rut in the early 1970’s and his record sales declining, that he’d revitalize himself by going into heavy metal. I like the band particularly for Clements’ surprisingly lyrical guitar soli; Torres is a serviceable singer rather than a great one, but he’s good enough to get the point across. They don’t write great songs, and the ones they do write seemed to throw the usually adept Live at the Belly Up chyron writers (one of the things I generally like about Live at the Belly Up is that they have chyrons giving the title of each song the band plays so I don’t have to guess frantically from whatever bits of the vocal I can make out just what the song is called, but in the case of the Grass Heat the producers didn’t have a title for their instrumental, the second song they played, nor for their third, which I guessed was called “I’m Coming Home”), but they play quite beautifully and both Torres and Clements are boyishly handsome young men (their third member, drummer Mike Stone, is larger, blonder and nowhere near as sexy) who are fun to look at and even more fun to listen to.