Man or Astro-Man with Sallie Ford and Wray
The Riot Room, Kansas City
Thursday, July 17
Last night's Man or Astro-Man show pulled a lot of mutton chops, slicked-back hair, and engineer's boots off the couch. It was, as expected, an older-leaning crowd. Given that the band has put out only one album in the last decade, this is not surprising. But the audience was nonetheless an enthusiastic one, lined up outside the door 30 people deep before Riot Room's doors opened (although a few of those people might've been waiting for the later Ying Yang Twins' set on the patio).
After a 45-minute drive, two openers and a raging sinus headache, I wasn't sure how much of Man or Astro-Man's set I could handle. But as soon as the screens booted up and the band took the stage, I was alert and ready to rock. The visuals on the screens behind the band took the audience into outer space, while the band conjured up sci-fi visions of interstellar overdrive.
The band is fierce. The second guitarist, Avona Nova, is a dynamo, dancing all over the stage and thrashing out chords. The songs, which on album are all stellar, become absolute forces of nature. "Codebreaker Seventy Eight" was absolutely intense, just bursting forth from the PA, making me reconsider Defcon 5...4...3...2...1
and leaving me wondering if I might've been too harsh in my initial dismissal of that record when it came out.
There was a gentleman up front who seemed hellbent on making sure Man or Astro-Man did nothing but play music, and to hell with any fun audience interaction. The band made a phone call to electronics whiz Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard to see why he wasn't in Kansas City with them (evidently, they forgot to pick him up), and this unimpressed concertgoer wouldn't have any of it. He kept shouting for them to "play some music!" Poor dude.
Audience interference aside, the band played an absolutely stellar set, drawing from the width and breadth of its catalog. For those who think surf rock is mellow music best put to soundtracking television commercials for sunscreen, Man or Astro-Man proved that the sound can be a dynamic force, capable of fully blasting one's face clean off and clear to the moon. There was depth and passion in those instrumental cuts, far more intense than your standard indie rocker sporting the heart-on-sleeve act.
Sallie Ford was an interesting choice for a tour mate. Her raucous garage dances on the edge of zydeco, but it's not a pastiche. Ford's music is entirely her own sound, and she and her band aren't afraid to get weird. Guitar freakouts and keyboard avant-gardism keep everything off-kilter. It's a bit oddball, but there's a distinct party atmosphere to the quartet's set. If the time signatures were anything standard, you'd gleefully clap along. As it is, you just grin and try to keep up.
Opener Wray drew all 30-some folks to the stage before they'd played a single note. Psychedelic projections were the sole lighting onstage, changing in time as the band played. It was tripod and hypnotic, with the trio rocking a blend of sunny surf mixed with darker kraut rock. The motorik beat that the drummer rocked mixed with swimming, shimmery guitar lines and bass work straight from Echo & the Bunnymen. Wray was better without vocals but sufficed when the bassist took the mic. Unlike the guitar player — who enunciated — the bassist used his vocals more as another instrument, indistinct but harmonious.
Man or Astro-Man setlist:
Inside the Atom
Evil Plans of Planet Spectra
Put Your Finger in the Socket
Transmissions From Venus
Codebreaker Seventy Eight
Man Made of CO2
Invasion of the Dragonmen
Communication Breakdown Pt. II
Maximum Radiation Level
Destination Venus (Rezillos cover)
Name of Numbers
Special Agent Conrad Uno