I Am A Killer (Netflix, 2018)

From the doubt-casting phenomenon Making a Murderer to the excellent serial killer series Mindhunter, Netflix is up to its ears in crime shows. Now they’re out to prove that there is apparently no such thing as crime fatigue with the release of 10 episode docuseries I Am A Killer.

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Using a bit of a broad brush, each episode of I Am A Killer focuses on a different death row inmate. All the men on the show have been convicted, sentenced to death, and fully admit to their crimes (although to what degree some of them admit to being involved is called into question) and they all discuss their crimes frankly, in their own words. While some episodes are more compelling than others, even the weaker ones are still interesting and easily watchable for fans of true crime.

One of the better episodes of the series tells the story of Justin Dickens, an addict who killed a customer during the attempted robbery of a jewelry store. He claims the customer charged him and fought for his gun—he shot the customer once in the torso, then the customer yanked on the gun once more, causing the gun to go off and deliver a fatal head shot. The prosecution in the case presented a vastly different version of events, and painted Dickens as a cold-blooded, calculated killer, claiming forensic evidence proved Dickens was lying. The other victim from the jewelry store, however, provides an eyewitness account that matches up exactly with Dickens’ version.

Why does this matter? Because in a crime of this type, if the victim provokes the perpetrator, the death penalty is taken off the table. The prosecution claimed Dickens shot the customer without a struggle, and succeeded in getting the death penalty for  Dickens.

Another standout is the story of Kenneth Foster, Jr., who received the death penalty after a friend he was riding in a car with shot and killed a man; he was convicted and sentenced under Texas’ Law of Parties, which states a person is equally responsible in the committing of a crime if they are believed to have solicited, aided, or encouraged the person who physically committed the crime.

Possibly the most thought-provoking episode features Joshua Nelson, who, at two months past his 18th birthday, teamed up with his 17 year old best friend to brutally murder a mutual friend in order to steal his car. Now 40, Joshua makes a compelling argument regarding the notion that he, despite what he’s done, is on some level deserving of forgiveness, and that he is redeemable. It’s an argument the victim’s mother (who still vividly remembers the chilling smirk Nelson gave her in the courtroom during the trial) doesn’t buy for a second.

And that’s exactly what makes the show so interesting. The team behind it does their best to show each case from all angles: the prosecution and defense, the victims’ families, even the criminals’ families and friends. Some may argue this makes it an attempt to humanize people who deserve no sympathy. I would argue that the only ones humanized in the series are the ones who can be.

James Robertson, for example, featured in Episode 1, comes off as an unfeeling monster as he recounts coming to the conclusion that the only way to improve his situation in prison was to murder his cellmate. His reasoned that the act would move him out of the unsatisfactory living conditions and frequent solitary confinement he’d been dealing with, and get him what he considered an upgrade by putting him on death row.

The show is not perfect; the weakest episodes come close to being boring, and the good ones leave you wishing they’d have spent more time examining their subjects. Either way, while I Am A Killer may not change anyone’s view on capital punishment, it is almost certainly guaranteed to make you stop and think.

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Behold My Dirty Little Secret

I need to confess something. I recently found out I’m into something kind of taboo. It’s something that’s generally frowned upon in popular society, but after stumbling across something on the internet recently I grew curious, and eventually realized I had to give in to my strange desires. And it all comes back to this woman:

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Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!

When I was a wee lad, I loved Happy Days. Arthur Fonzarelli was my favorite character on TV, but I loved anything and everything related to the show, including its spinoffs, Mork & Mindy (RIP Robin Williams) and Laverne & Shirley.

Played by now-famous director Penny Marshall (Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own, less impressive things after 1992) was co-titular character Laverne DeFazio, a tough-talking Brooklynite living in Wisconsin who, along with the embroidered ‘L’ on all her clothes, had one memorably odd trait: she enjoyed a beverage that churned the other characters’ stomachs—Pepsi and milk.

I know what some of you might be thinking, but hang on a minute—just hear me out. Do you like root beer floats, or as an old relative of mine used to make, Dr. Pepper floats? As was pointed out in the Reddit thread I recently stumbled across, it’s the same concept, just with a slightly different form of dairy.

As a matter of fact, what I found when I did a little research into the unusual concoction is that it’s not entirely uncommon on the East Coast, and similar to a drink from Latin America in which condensed milk is added to malta (a carbonated beverage sort of like cola). Thailand uses condensed milk in it’s version of iced milk tea, and the Vietnamese commonly add condensed milk to coffee—adding milk or cream to stuff is not as weird as it seems, honest.

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Cha Yen, Thailand’s iced milk tea

Always one down to try new beverages, I decided to give it a shot and see how odd it actually was. It turned out to be pretty good! It took a little tweaking to get it just how I liked it, but nowhere near the stomach-churning gagfest that Lenny and Squiggy made it out to be on TV. I was all in, and before long I was hooked.

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Back when this photo would’ve been taken, who would’ve guessed the marvelous actor Michael Mckean would become?

As for my own personal recipe? I’ve spent the last couple weeks experimenting, and here’s what I’ve come up with: I use Pepsi Zero Sugar (Coke Zero Sugar is good too) and almond milk (vanilla almond milk would be great) in about a 60/40 ratio, topped with a splash of cream and a trickle of almond extract. Absolutely delicious.

If you’re (perhaps understandably) skeptical, start slow—try some root beer with a splash of cream. If you like it (which you should, it’s basically a melted root beer float), get bolder. Try some milk, or almond milk, or soy milk, whatever you desire. You can even switch up the soda you use. Like Sprite? Do it. Orange Fanta? That’s a liquid creamsicle, baby! Go for it—you may just end up with a new favorite drink. ***Side note: what kind of booze can be added to take this beverage to the next level is yet to be determined.

If you like the sound of the recipe I came up with above, by all means give it a whirl and let me know how you like it. I call it the DeFazio.

Thanks, Laverne.

 

 

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Movie Review: Harry Benson—Shoot First [2016]

There’s a chance you may have never heard of photographer Harry Benson, and if it were up to him, he probably wouldn’t have it any other way. But if you do a quick Google search of the man, you’d probably recognize many of his photos.

Harry Benson is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the last half of the twentieth century, perhaps most notably for a photo of The Beatles in a rambunctious pillow fight the night they found out I Want to Hold Your Hand hit number one in the US. That assignment to shoot the young band in Paris (which he hadn’t originally wanted) led to not only a decades-long friendship with The Fab Four, but to a prominent career—as a portrait photographer of celebrities, photographing every living president from Eisenhower to Obama (as well as a pre-presidential run Donald Trump), and award-winning photojournalist. The 2016 documentary Harry Benson—Shoot First takes a look back at the legendary Scot’s career and the stories behind some of his most famous images.

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Beatles, Paris 1964

To say Benson’s career has been remarkable is an understatement. At times it seems the man has had an almost Forrest Gump-like knack for being in the right place at the right time, capturing one historic moment after another (a photo of Robert Kennedy’s wife in the moments after his assassination is another of his most iconic photos; famous photos of the reclusive Greta Garbo and a couple passionately kissing at a bar relied almost entirely on luck). But what a family member states, and what becomes more clear as the film goes on, is that Harry Benson worked harder than most of his peers, and many of his iconic shots exist only because he made them happen. He had to do whatever it took to get the confidence of whoever it was he wanted to shoot, and once he got in the room with them he had to make them comfortable enough to let their guard down so he could capture them as they really were, not the posed, stiff photos many studio photographers got (Benson famously hates studio photography).

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Bobby Fischer, Iceland 1972

He has a knack for making people feel at ease, evidenced by the fact he has photographed some of the most private people in the world at some of their most private moments: Quarterback Joe Namath at home in his legendary bachelor pad; Chess champion Bobby Fischer nude in the shower; Elizabeth Taylor in her hospital bed before and after surgery to remove a brain tumor; Michael Jackson in his Neverland Ranch bedroom; and possibly my favorite of all his photos, a backstage shot of country legend Dolly Parton in silhouette, “putting on her face.”

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Dolly Parton, Nashville 1977

Shoot First is not a hard-hitting, warts-and-all documentary—rather, it’s pretty adoring of its subject. But it’s not hard to realize he’s earned the admiration he’s received over the years. The film takes us back to Harry’s roots as a tabloid photographer on Fleet Street in London (where Benson says he got the ability to snap photos quickly and find perspectives other photogs might miss), as well as a look at the gut-wrenching work he did in Somali refugee camps—he has always maintained that he is, first and foremost, a photojournalist—reminding us that hard work paid off for him, and, when looking at his portfolio, he truly has an eye for outstanding photos.

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Dr. Milton Avery with refugee family, Somalia 1981

The film doesn’t touch on any technical aspects of his work—the type of camera Harry uses or any settings he used for a given photo are barely mentioned, if at all—and he would probably tell you that’s because that stuff largely doesn’t matter. What matters most is being ready and anticipating the shot before it presents itself. And to that end, Harry Benson is a master. He’s also extremely affable and self-deprecating to boot, which makes listening to him tell the stories behind his photos a joy.

If you have even a passing interest in photography, pop culture, or landmark moments of the 20th century, there’s a good chance you’ll like this film. You can stream Shoot First on Netflix, or check out some of his iconic images here and here.

 

Movie Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99 [2017]

I’ve long contended that many comedians (or at least comic actors, if not stand ups) have the potential to be outstanding dramatic actors. Once seen as an unusual casting choice, comic actors have repeatedly proven their chops in dramatic roles, from Robin Williams and Will Smith to Will Ferrell and even Adam Sandler. I still stand by my theory that Dave Chappelle has at least one (possibly mutltiple) award-winning dramatic performance in him—that is, if he wants to do it, or if the right director can convince him to step up to the plate.

The latest actor stepping out of his comedic comfort zone is Vince Vaughn. Since his breakout role in 1996’s Swingers, Vaughan has found success almost exclusively with parts in comedies like Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Wedding Crashers, and Dodgeball. He’s shown a yearning to “go legit” in dramas for years, most notably starring as Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s 1999 remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, but has now gone on a run of dramatic performances that has gotten him some attention: a lukewarm turn as Frank Semyon, the heavy in the critically-panned second season of HBO’s True Detective; hardass (but still slightly funny) Sgt. Howell in Mel Gibson’s acclaimed World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge; and what may be, depending on your tastes, either his best or worst dramatic performance to date—as an ex-boxer stuck between a rock and a hard place in S. Craig Zahler’s homage to 70’s revenge exploitation flicks, Brawl in Cell Block 99.

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Brawl features Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a man in the unique position of being a good man with a strong moral compass, while also being the ultimate badass. Working at a service station at the start of the film, Bradley is promptly laid off—only to drive home early and discover that his wife is seeing someone else. After a tantrum in which he destroys/disassembles his wife’s vehicle by hand (a glimpse of the violence he’s capable of), Bradley and his wife Lauren (played by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) admit their relationship hasn’t been the same since the miscarriage that rocked them to their core. They decide to recommit to each other and try for another baby, and Bradley decides to go back to running drugs for his dealer friend Gil, to which Lauren reluctantly agrees.

Fast forward 18 months and Bradley is driving a much nicer car to a much larger home after a day of making deliveries for Gil. We learn that Lauren is expecting again, and the loving couple couldn’t be happier—although we all know that can’t last.

Bradley accepts an offer he can’t refuse from Gil, who has partnered with a Mexican drug lord. The job goes south, and Bradley’s partners in the job end up in a shootout with police. Rather than escape scot-free, Bradley kills one partner and injures another, ending the shootout and saving police lives, before being arrested without further incident.

After being sentenced to 7 years in a medium-security prison, Bradley is visited by a henchman of the Mexican drug lord, who tells Bradley he is now indebted to the man to the tune of 3.2 million dollars to make up for drugs lost in the failed job. He can erase that debt, however, if he takes out a prisoner the drug lord wants dead. And if he doesn’t…terrible things will be done to his wife and unborn baby. The catch? The prisoner Bradley is to take out is in a different, maximum-security prison. Bradley must figure out a way to get himself transferred there, and his plan to do so is ultra violent.

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S. Craig Zahler’s first film, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, was a fantastic debut—an original concept (a mashup of western and horror) made even better with stunning cinematography, vivid characters, and exceptional dialogue. While these elements are also present in Brawl in Cell Block 99, they are there in smaller doses, and don’t quite match the brilliance that made Bone Tomahawk so great. That’s not to say Brawl isn’t good—it just has different ambitions, calling to mind the films of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson.

The biggest quality this film shares with Zahler’s previous effort is the deliberate pacing and slow build to a savage, intense climax. The director spends quite a while detailing how Bradley has everything of value taken from him until, despite the fact he was not the most likable character at the start of the film, you end up rooting for him to get some sort of justice against those who have put his back against the wall. Time passes quickly despite the film’s 2 hour and 12 minute running time, a testament to Zahler’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and not let go. His next film is Dragged Across Concrete, re-teaming him with Vaughn and co-starring Mel Gibson, a film about police brutality and cops caught up in a violent underworld. I, for one, can hardly wait.

What will make or break this film for you is the incredibly graphic displays of violence Bradley uses to get transferred to Red Leaf, the maximum-security hellhole that houses the man he is to kill, and the subsequent acts he performs once he gets there. To call it unflinching is an understatement—a couple of scenes are absolutely jaw-dropping in terms of what they show you, on the level with some of the most over the top horror movies out there. And Brawl in Cell Block 99 is nothing if not over the top.

As a matter of fact, it requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief to make this movie fly (why did he shoot his partners rather than escape? How is it this “ex-boxer” has a fighting style closer to Krav Maga? How in the hell does he have the stomping power of a hydraulic press?), but if you’re able to do so (and have the stomach for it)…you’re in for a wild ride.

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The Sisters Brothers—Patrick DeWitt [2011]

It’s been said that the best gift you can give someone is something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. Taking that into consideration, receiving a Christmas gift in the form of Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, 2011’s The Sisters Brothers, is made all the better. I’m not a huge fan of Westerns—I’ve never even read any from one of my literary idols, Elmore Leonard—and had I seen this on the shelf at my local bookstore I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought, and good grief, would that have been my loss.

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A pair of contract killers during the height of the gold rush, Charlie and Eli Sisters are both brutal and ruthless, yet very different at the same time. Charlie, the elder, is wild and cocksure, while younger Eli is more contemplative and soft—emotionally and physically, thanks to his ample gut—and it’s through his eyes we’re told the story.

The men work for The Commodore, a scrupleless businessman who hires the brothers to travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (if awards were given for character names, I’d bestow one upon DeWitt for this one). The Commodore has a scout in San Francisco, Morris, keeping tabs on Mr. Warm, whom the brothers are to meet upon arriving in town so he can provide them with Hermann’s whereabouts. On the surface it’s a simple plot about a hired hit, but there’s so much more to it than that. At its core, it’s about Eli’s yearning for a simpler, less violent life—maybe settling down with a good woman and becoming a shopkeeper—and the changes he and Charlie go through by the time they get back to Oregon City.

DeWitt does a marvelous job setting the tone for the novel from the outset: Having finished their last job, Eli sits outside on his new horse while Charlie is inside, discussing the pair’s next job with The Commodore. Both the brothers’ horses were burned up during their last assignment, and The Commodore has replaced them with new horses that show just what he thinks of the brothers—suave, dapper Charlie is given a fit, sturdy horse named Nimble, while Eli receives the “portly and low-backed” horse, Tub. While initially not fond of him, Eli comes to find he has a begrudging respect for Tub, sensing that the animal has “a desire to improve himself.” Over the course of the book we discover this applies to our narrator as well.

Comparisons abound for The Sisters Brothers, from the books of Cormac McCarthy to the classic westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to the more off-kilter films from the Coen Brothers, even to legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller. I feel the best description is as a mash up between the brutal violence of McCarthy with the sometimes borderline absurdity of the Coen Brothers’ quirkier pictures. The picaresque nature of the story, as the brothers encounter one memorable, quirky character after another, calls to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou? (itself a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey). It’s a bit of a shame the Coens aren’t involved in the film adaptation slated for release later this year, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Riley as Charlie and Eli.

One absurdly comic scene in the book involves the brothers finding shelter in a small home occupied by an old woman who the brothers are convinced is a witch. When they rise the following morning to find the witch gone and what they believe to be a cursed garment blocking the doorway, Charlie climbs out through a window, resolving to get help and return for his brother, who is too rotund to follow Charlie through said window.

The first half of the book is made up of several such odd encounters, my favorite of which involves a teenage boy who has been abandoned by his father. After remarking that nearly every run in he’d had with people ended with him being hit in the head, Eli sympathizes with the boy, although after ceaseless pleading from the boy to join them on their travels, Eli almost takes the same action toward him:

“I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head. It was a head that invited violence.”

Eli’s narration is strikingly eloquent and formal, a stark contrast to the contemporary novels I’ve spent the majority of my life reading, as well as a contrast to the story’s odd humor and occasional instances of brutal violence. Once Eli and Charlie reach San Francisco to make contact with Morris (and subsequently Warm), the plot shifts from somewhat absurd to slightly surreal, with a finale that’s in turns funny, somber, and touching.

I found reading this book a joy, with nary a misstep throughout. There was one brief passage I found myself flipping through, but I am notoriously impatient. The short chapters made for an easy, addicting read, and a book that I had a hard time putting down. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, so go pick it up and treat yourself to the gift of a good book.

***A final quote from Mr. Warm, one which I found highly relatable:

“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood—weak blood, diluted—and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.”

Buy The Sisters Brothers here.

Big Mouth [Netflix, 2017]

A lot of words can be used to describe puberty: Awkward. Gross. Uncomfortable. Hilarious. These also pretty accurately describe the Netflix animated comedy Big Mouth.

The brainchild of comedian Nick Kroll and his childhood friend and Family Guy writer/producer Andrew Goldberg (plus Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett), Big Mouth debuted on Netflix in September 2017 and has already been confirmed for a second season coming (no pun intended*) later this year.

Big Mouth centers on the relationship between Nick (the aforementioned Kroll) and Andrew (superb comedian John Mulaney), and their friends—the eternally horny aspiring magician Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), the smart and cynical Jessi (Jessi Klein), and the endearingly nerdy and slightly naive Missy (Jenny Slate)—as they traverse the rocky terrain between adolescence and puberty.

Surreality and absurdism play a large part in the show, to both good and bad effect. The best of the good is represented by two things: first, the presence of hormone monsters (and a hormone monstress) that speak to the children (and at least one adult), usually giving them bad advice and encouraging them to give in to their weirdest, most depraved thoughts, and second, some of the musical numbers—especially when a sexually confused Andrew sings with the ghost of Freddie Mercury, or when a tampon resembling Michael Stipe sings a parody of Everybody Hurts called Everybody Bleeds. The worst of the bad can be seen in all its glory in Episode 6, Pillow Talk, where Jay goes on an emotional roller coaster with his sex pillow (later involving his bathmat). When the show crosses that line into the utterly absurd it can become a chore to finish (no pun intended*).

Despite the fantastical, ridiculous, and flat-out weird elements that permeate the show, Big Mouth actually manages to make the characters relatable in the way it handles the characters’ emotions and reactions to what’s happening to their bodies. It’s impossible to watch the show and not at some point be reminded of your own stumble toward adulthood in some way, be it wet dreams, accidental and sometimes confusing erections, exploring your nether regions for the first time, or having sexual relations with the severed head of Garrison Keillor.

The cast of Big Mouth is practically a comedy honor roll—scanning the names voicing the show’s many characters, it was easier to pick the names I didn’t recognize rather than the ones I did. Along with the excellent main cast, the show also features the talents of Fred Armisen, Andrew Rannells, Kristen Bell, Jon Hamm, Kirsten Wiig, as well as my two personal favorites: Maya Rudolph is phenomenal as the sassy and nasty hormone monstress, Connie, and Jordan Peele absolutely slays as the ghost of Duke Ellington, who lives in Andrew’s attic and says a plethora of immoral and outlandish things to the boys, as well as giving them generally terrible advice.

With a show this vulgar and gross, it’s definitely going to have its detractors. My friend Eric in California (Hi, Eric!) stated in no uncertain terms that a show featuring ejaculation, menstruation, and masturbation did not appeal to him whatsoever. To that, all I can say is, different strokes for different folks (no pun intended*). With that in mind, if you’d like to see a completely different take on the show, you can read this extremely negative review I found while doing some research to write my own. Ironically, it is far more graphic and detailed than mine, presumably in an attempt to offend anyone who reads it as much as the person who wrote it.

Although it takes jokes too far in places, for the most part Big Mouth is a solid comedy that will elicit steady chuckles and occasional big laughs. Just know you’re in for some depravity—if you expect any less, you’ve got another thing coming (no pun intended*).

 

*j/k all puns intended

Reverend Horton Heat/Fishbone 09/30/17—The Cotillion Ballroom, Wichita, KS

You could make a lot of assumptions about the city of Wichita, KS. You could assume it’s a flyover state hellhole devoid of any culture or art, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume it’s a city full of hayseeds and rednecks who don’t take kindly to outsiders, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume there aren’t a lot of options for live music outside of country concerts…and you’d be almost right on the button.

There are others, however, who perform in our fair city time and time again—the dogged road warriors who tour relentlessly and build their following the old fashioned way, before YouTube hits made someone a celebrity without leaving their bedroom. When I think of who has played Wichita (country acts notwithstanding) more than anyone else, two names come to mind: rapper Tech N9ne from Kansas City (which practically makes him a local), and Dallas rockabilly legend Reverend Horton Heat.

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L-R: RJ Contreras, Jim Heath, Jimbo Wallace

RHH has played Wichita maybe six or eight times over the past decade. That may not sound like much, but as someone who’s spent the last ten years in the sunflower state pining for the old days when I could drive to LA or Las Vegas to see any concert under the sun, six or eight times in ten years is a lot. As for me, I’ve personally seen RHH at least eight times now in three different states, with three different drummers, but that hardly matters. No matter the circumstances, The Rev always puts on a fantastic show, and Saturday night at The Cotillion was no exception.

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Jimbo Wallace

One of the things I’ve always liked about Reverend Horton Heat is that, as with a lot of bands who tour exhaustively, they end up playing with just about everyone, which makes for some especially eclectic shows. Over the years, RHH has played with everyone from traditional rockabilly and country acts to White Zombie and Motörhead. Which is to say it should’ve come as no surprise when RHH hit the road with ska/funk/punk heroes Fishbone.

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Angelo Moore

Some may remember Fishbone from their early 90’s commercial peak with the release of The Reality of My Surroundings, featuring their only two singles to make the charts, Everyday Sunshine and Sunless Saturday. Some may also wonder what happened to them since then. It turns out Fishbone is doing just fine, thank you very much.

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L-R: Paul Hampton, Angelo Moore, Walter Kibby

Fronted by original vocalist/saxophonist Angelo Moore (one of three original members still playing with the band), Fishbone took a somewhat lukewarm crowd and had them eating out of the palms of their hands by the end of their almost hour-long set. Opening with the aforementioned Sunless Saturday, Moore and company set the bar high for the energy level they had to sustain for the rest of the set—a bar they had no problem clearing, and then some. Moore is as entertaining and energetic a frontman as you’re likely to find. His exaggerated facial expressions and grandiose, frenetic body language was fun to watch and a blast to photograph.

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Angelo Moore

With occasional help from a trusty roadie, Angelo switched from vocals to one of a myriad of different saxes with ease, even placing and re-placing the mic stand for his horn on cue every time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the band sounded incredible. I spent the majority of the set planted in front of bassist and fellow original member Norwood Fisher, who laid down incredible grooves on an array of beautiful basses. By the end of closer Party at Ground Zero, the crowd was hyped and ready to testify.

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L-R: Walter Kibby, Norwood Fisher

 

Reverend Horton Heat, aka Jim Heath, has been cranking out his brand of rockabilly/punkabilly/psychobilly/whatever you want to put in front of “billy” since 1985, and has hardly let up since. Heath and his loyal sidekick/bass player Jim “Jimbo” Wallace were in the midst of recording a new album when previous drummer Scott Churilla decided to go his own way, leaving the band in a tight spot. Luckily, fate intervened in the form of fellow Texan Arjuna “RJ” Contreras, formerly of the terrific-yet-vastly-under-appreciated polka band (yes, that’s right) Brave Combo. He stepped in to record his parts for the album and was on the road touring before he knew what hit him. So would the new drummer change Reverend Horton Heat’s sound? Yes and no.

That’s because many of the songs in RHH’s set were classics and fan favorites. It would take some truly radical drumming to change the sound of set-opening instrumental Big Sky, or the dynamic push and pull of The Devil’s Chasin’ Me, but Contreras definitely has his own style, tinkering with certain drum parts and making them his own. Personally, I think RJ is a great fit for the band and I hope he has a permanent gig with the guys.

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RJ Contreras

The Cotillion Ballroom is probably my favorite venue in Wichita, and possibly the Reverend’s too, as he proudly declared how happy he was to be “in Wichita, Kansas at The Cotillion on Friday night!” despite it being Saturday. He may have been joking (he repeatedly said it was Friday, possibly just to mess with the inebriated), but if he was really confused, it’s easy to forgive—this was their 23rd show in 29 days. I’m impressed he even knew what city he was in, but then, when you’re the hardest working man in rockabilly, I assume touring with nary a day off becomes old hat.

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Jim Heath, RJ Contreras

As it turned out, the show at The Cotillion marked the end of their month-long tour with Fishbone and Los Kung Fu Monkeys (the tour’s other support act, Strung Out, bowed out the night before in Peoria, Illinois), and they commemorated the end of the tour by having a huge jam session on stage with members of all three bands. At one point during Fishbone’s set, I even caught the Reverend himself standing three feet from me, taking pictures of the band on his cell phone. It was a great show, and the best part is that with a band that works as hard as they do, I can count on them coming back to town soon.

Side note: if you don’t believe the “hardest working man in rockabilly” claim, check out RHH’s Facebook page—they already have tour dates up for the entire month of October, featuring some shows with country swing and doo wop master Big Sandy, and the entire month of December, those shows being an amazing triple bill featuring roots rock legends The Blasters and country guitar virtuoso Junior Brown. If they’re coming to your town, I highly recommend checking them out. If not, don’t worry—there’s a good chance eventually the Rev will come to you.

***Catch all my future music-related writing at killboringmusic.com—concert and album reviews, and check out the music podcast I’m co-hosting, The Ringing Ear. Here’s my latest concert review, P!nk at Intrust Bank Arena!