I’ve long admired musicians who find it easy to collaborate, moving seamlessly (or so it seems) from group to group while maintaining their own careers. Neko Case and Emmylou Harris do this all the time, as do others, but Dave Alvin and John Doe are experts in the art of the side project.
The longtime friends have worked together off and on for almost 40 years, since the heady days of The Blasters and X, forefathers and fixtures of the early 1980s Los Angeles punk rock scene. At one point, between leaving The Blasters and going solo, Alvin joined X for a brief period and gave the group his classic “4th of July” for their “See How We Are” album.
Over the past three-plus decades, I’ve managed to see Alvin and Doe live as part of two side projects — The Knitters and one-off supergroup The Pleasure Barons (still one of my favorite shows ever). But it wasn’t until Saturday night, at Union Stage in Washington, D.C., that I managed to catch the elusive Flesh Eaters.
Understandably, The Flesh Eaters does not sound like a natural fit for a website that focuses on Americana music. But given the group’s makeup, and the way its members have toggled effortlessly between genres, it makes perfect sense.
A fun mix of blues, punk, country, and garage band pop/grunge, with plenty of saxophone and occasional forays into jazz, the show presented an opportunity for musicians who genuinely seem to enjoy playing together to do so. After 16 songs and almost 100 minutes of music, which followed a set by opener Porcupine, the audience walked out knowing they had seen something that may never happen again.
Founded by singer-songwriter Chris Desjardins, self-described as a morbidly romantic punk poet, The Flesh Eaters have had a rotating cast of musicians during an off-and-on history that dates back to 1977. In 1981, Alvin, Doe and other members of X and The Blasters backed up Desjardins (known as Chris D) on the album A Minute to Pray. The album was put out by Ruby, a Slash Records subsidiary. (Subsidiary, in this case, meaning you had next-to-no budget to record.)
After recording the album, Doe and percussionist/drummer D.J. Bonebrake went back to X, while Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman, and saxophone player Steve Berlin returned to The Blasters. (Berlin later left and joined Los Lobos, with whom he plays to this day.)
The group did not play together again until 2006, when they performed three shows in California and one in England to mark the album’s 25th anniversary. They reunited briefly in 2015 for a five-show tour and again for an eight-show run last year. That convinced Desjardins to ask the other members to return to the studio.
I Used to be Pretty, released earlier this year by YepRoc (the label home to Alvin and Doe) (read our review here), does not deviate from the formula that had many searching for out-of-print copies of its supergroup predecessor. (“A Minute to Pray,” was re-released in 2015.) The band members sound like they’re having fun. Some songs work better than others; some focus on affect when effect would do.
Live is where you see it come all together. Berlin’s sax figures prominently, and Alvin cuts loose on lead guitar. Doe has always been somewhat underrated as a bass player, and taking him off lead vocals shows you how good he is. Bateman and Bonebrake provide a solid backbone to the music.
Highlights included the opener “See You in the Boneyard,” a cover of “Cinderella” by The Sonics, “My Life to Live,” “Black Temptation,” and “Miss Muerte,” which closed out the set before the two-song encore. I enjoyed hearing “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” which Doe wrote for “A Minute to Pray” and later repurposed for X, as well as the blistering set closer, “Ghost Cave Lament.”
Desjardins seemed to be having a blast. He mentioned this may be the one and only time we are able to see this group on the East Coast, which may be true. But his temporary bandmates made sure it was a memorable evening.
As much as I enjoyed the headliner, I also was impressed with Porcupine, the trio that opened the evening. The group’s 45-minute set was highlighted by songs from its recent EP, “What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real,” released in November.
Led by Casey Virock on guitars/vocals and drummer Ian Prince, the band received a boost when former Husker Du bass player Greg Norton joined the group in 2016. Norton, who hasn’t been on an extended tour since 1989, clearly enjoyed playing in Washington, D.C. for the first time since Husker Du broke up. If you’re a fan of late 90s alternative music “without compromise,” as the band describes its sound, check them out.