The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Higher Ground, Burlington, October 16
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Taking part in a self-guided, two-day tour of Vermont’s breweries, I happened to be in Burlington the same night as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was playing the college town’s Higher Ground. As it happened, so was Morrissey, who was downtown at the Flynn Theatre, and it was because of the competing show that the locals I talked to attributed the low turnout for Messrs. Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins.

This was neither the first nor the second time I had seen the band since they returned to active duty after going on hiatus for a few years. At Brooklyn Bowl a couple years ago, they seemed stiff, as if they had grown arthritic during the time off, and their song selection (e.g. “Magical Colors”) left something to be desired. Conversely, the trio seemed energized last month when they played a “secret” show at Bowery Electric. In this instance, though, they only diverted from their new album, Meat and Bone, for a cover of the Beastie Boys’ “She’s On It,” and I was a little disappointed that they didn’t treat us to a few choice cuts from their back catalog for an encore.

For the small Vermont crowd, which included Spencer’s sister, who lives in the area, the Blues Explosion again stuck primarily to the new record. This wasn’t problematic as Meat and Bone is a barrelnosed collection of bluesy rock & roll bruised with punk attitude, and tracks like “Black Mold,” “Get Your Pants Off” and “Bottle Baby” flourished with the energy of the band’s live show. But while Spencer interjected the set with his patented “Blues Explosion!” exclamations, the performance seemed a little rushed at first, as if the band was anxious to get through the evening. They eventually settled down, though, and found their groove as it were. “She’s On It” was a highlight of the evening, Simins hitting each beat with appropriate aplomb. Spencer shucked and jived his way through the set, and by the end was dripping with sweat, while Bauer was the polar opposite, looking cool and, at times, nonchalant.

But while they pulled out “Bellbottoms,” the night could have benefitted from a few more cuts from the band’s backpages. It is appreciable that they are into their latest release, but it seems a shame to ignore such a rich catalog. Maybe with the noise of a larger crowd to rev them on, the trio may have dipped further into their well. Subsequently, it was hard to shake the feeling that we didn’t get all that the Blues Explosion had to give. But whether operating at peak level or not, Spencer and his cohorts still put on one hell of a show, and at this point, are only their own measuring stick.