Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, M.I.A., and Triclops!: October 25, 2009 – El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA By Adrian

Nov 24, 2009

Knowing there was a new Jello Biafra musical project piqued my interest. I had seen Jello twice before. Once was in 2003 right after I came to LA for college, when he did a spoken word appearance in support of the West Memphis 3. In 2005 I saw Jello actually doing music when he toured with the Melvins. Both times were massively inspiring.

I made sure to get to the show relatively early to catch Triclops! I have a copy of their album Out of Africa, and in all truthfulness I don’t like it much. The whole CD feels like studio effects overload. Someone who knew about the band had told me that they felt the album wasn’t so great either, but that I needed to still see them live. That person’s recommendation was totally right. Live the band’s nearly psychedelic, prog-punk is stripped down and consequently way more raw and direct than on wax. If nothing else it seemed that singer Johnny (also of the Fleshies) was intent on making sure no one in the small, early bird, crowd was a passive bystander, due to his frequent excursions onto the floor of the El Rey. More than a few people had to be quick on their feet so they didn’t get rolled or crawled into by Johnny. Occasionally the bands tight noise-prog-punk jams were augmented by Johnny singing into various vocal effects processors and abusing an overdriven one-string bass. I won’t say I’m a fan of the album now, but Triclops! fall into the category of bands like the Locust or Flipper who need to be seen live at least once to be fully appreciative of the intensity of their sound.

An interesting aside I noticed in-between and during the opening bands was that Jello Biafra was actually watching and enjoying the opening bands from out in the audience. It’s refreshing to know that some of these punk icons actually still do this stuff because they like it. Even more so is that it’s good to know he was approachable. It’s not so much that I wanted to go and say anything, but its nice to not always have to operate on the principal that “anyone you admire is probably an asshole or think their better than you, so keep your distance.”

M.I.A. was up next. She started out with some cuts from Kala and then got the crowd worked into a Day-glo and spandex lather with her hit “Paper Planes”… Actually this was Orange County (by way of Las Vegas) hardcore veterans M.I.A. My knowledge of M.I.A. is pretty lean, consisting almost solely of the song “Small Man in a Big World.” I did know the band had recently faced some tragedy with the recent death of long time singer Mike Conley. It seems the band now consists of their one time vocalist Todd Sampson, original guitarist Nick Adams, and a rotating lineup of their original drummers, and a shifting bass slot. Being a big fan of the early, melodic hardcore from Orange County, I was surprised I hadn’t gotten on the M.I.A. band wagon sooner. The band had the same vibe as early T.S.O.L.; quick and concise, but tuneful. I have the feeling that the early Offspring listened to these guys more than a little bit. For a band that seems to have been inactive until fairly recently and having suffered some large setbacks, they pulled off a surprisingly tight set. It was better to discover them later than never. Song titles I caught included “Gas Crisis,” “Tell Me Why,” and “I Hate Hippies.”
Jello Biafra took the stage with his new band the 4 piece Guantanamo School of Medicine. Biafra was resplendent in what looked like a magicians robe over an American flag button up shirt. Both of these articles of clothing disappeared before the set went on too long and gave way to a “I Support Iraq Veterans Agaisnt the War” T-Shirt. Sure Jello was a bit puffy and balding a little (in fact Biafra and Morrissey seem to share quite a bit of resemblance now a days), but it was clear that he was not just going through the paces and resting on his laurels. He played a selection of songs from his new album, The Audacity of Hype, including two songs, “Electronic Plantation” and “New Feudalism,” that were reworked from his one-off band the No W.T.O. Combo. In addition he worked four Dead Kennedys’ gems into the set; “California Uber Alles,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Holiday in Cambodia,” and “Bleed for Me.” The new songs were good and were in the vaguely metallic, punk vein of his songs with the Melvins, Nomeansno, and D.O.A. Nothing was quite as experimental sounding as his Lard material. Some of the newer songs did go a little longer than they needed to at times, but they all continued his tradition of modern day protest music. My favorite of the new material was the song he closed the set out with, “I Won’t Give Up.” It starts with a heavy almost bluesy groove and really peaks for me at the very end with the layered vocal coda of “I won’t give up.”

Hearing the Dead Kennedys material sang by Jello was pretty amazing. First off, he updated the lyrics to “California Uber Alles” so that the song was topical. I’ve heard the song covered by bands a couple of times and it usually makes me want to slap my forehead when they sing the song exactly as it was recorded. To me it is a song that screams to be reinterpreted every few years, and not just left intact like a musty museum piece. The message of the song is as strong as ever, but the specifics of the lyrics are something that has to be kept continuously refreshed for the song to properly convey what it needs to. I was so thankful that about things like the references to Jerry Brown changed to Schwarzenegger, etc…. The other DK songs were just badass to hear live. Jello gave it his all during the whole set with his trademark voice in fine shape. He constantly pantomimed the actions of the songs and even ended up in the pit once. The best parts of the whole night though were the times that Jello would speak between songs. It is easy to take the Dead Kennedy’s influence for granted. To almost anyone with more than a cursory interest in punk, the Dead Kennedys and Jello seem like institutions that have always been around, but hearing Jello speak stirred and riled me up in a way I hadn’t felt in a long while. It makes it clear that the reason the Dead Kennedys and Jello figured so heavily in the cosmology of punk rock is because they were really fucking inspiring and are like the gateway drug to looking at the world with a critical (but not necessarily jaded and cynical) eye. Jello brought up several topics including military torture, healthcare, and gentrification that reminded the crowd that things just aren’t right, but in a way that reminds a person that they got to continue on struggling and working towards better things instead of just letting the world have its way. As prickly of a personality that Biafra can seem at times, I’m glad he’s still around contributing to the world at large with projects like his new band. He makes the world a more interesting place.