SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A noted noise-punk pioneer and writer returns to the Bay Area with her latest music project when the Lydia Lunch Retrovirus joins celebrated local avant-rock band Oxbow and explosive punk power trio Victims Family at the Great American Music Hall Saturday night.
One of the longest running experimental-rock outfits in the Bay Area, Oxbow has gone from clearing rooms in the early ’90s with it’s squalling, abrasive music and the disturbing, sometimes confrontational onstage performance of singer Eugene Robinson to become an acclaimed mainstay on San Francisco’s fringe music scene.
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Robinson first collaborated with Oxbow guitarist and main musical arranger Niko Wenner when he joined the singer’s art rock-meets-hardcore band Whipping Boy in time to contribute to the group’s final full album The Third Secret of Fatima in 1985. The far more unconventional Oxbow began strictly as a recording project late in the decade. Former Whipping Boy drummer Dan Adams switched to bass for the band while drumming chores were split by Greg Davis and Tom Dobrov (Davis would take over full time in 1993 after Dobrov’s departure).
Formed around the concept of musical freedom with no commercial aspirations, Oxbow mixed elements of noise rock that echoed Nick Cave’s early band the Birthday Party and NYC sonic extremists Swans as well as such diverse inspirations as blues (in Wenner’s screaming, dive-bombing bottleneck solos), dissonant modern classical, punk and metal. The cacophonous musical bed was matched by Robinson’s wailing, unhinged delivery of multi-tracked vocals that sound like avant-garde singer Diamanda Galas channeling the right Reverend Al Green.
The band’s dense and challenging early albums found a core of fans drawn to the extremism of the music, including noted recording engineer and Big Black/Shellac guitarist Steve Albini who would help track Oxbow’s even more ambitious efforts, 1995’s Let Me Be a Woman and 1997’s cinematic Serenade in Red. The latter album featured a guest spot from UK chanteuse Marianne Faithful on a harrowing cover of Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum.”
In the first decade of the new millennium, Oxbow only issued two proper studio albums — An Evil Heat in 2002 on Neurot Records and the conceptual opus The Narcotic Story on Hydra Head — but the group also branched out into film with the release of the tour documentary Music For Adults. The film followed a 2002 Oxbow tour through Europe and some of Robinson’s more physical confrontations with concertgoers who decided to test out his reputation for brawling (the MMA-trained singer would publish an acclaimed first-hand account of his exploration of combat, Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About A**-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your A** Kicked for Asking, in 2007).
The band would spend the better part of a decade working on their long-awaited recording The Thin Black Duke, but Oxbow has also delved into a variety of configurations, performing as an acoustic quartet as well as a stripped-down duo of just Wenner and Robinson. The pair has also toured Europe and played Birmingham, England’s 2012 Supersonic Festival backed by a full chamber ensemble billed as the Oxbow Orchestra. Despite longtime record label Hydra Head having gone out of business, the imprint would come out of dormancy to release The Thin Black Duke in 2017. Filling out their sound with meticulously arranged horns and strings that give Robinson’s menacing vocal ruminations and the band’s foreboding tunes a sweeping, cinematic scope, The Think Black Duke was hailed by many as the quartet’s greatest achievement yet.
The dense, dark-hearted journey of an album made numerous best of lists and affirmed Oxbow’s place in the vanguard of modern experimental rock. The band would tour Europe extensively after its release, making numerous festival appearances including a celebrated live collaboration with German free-jazz saxophone legend Peter Brötzmann at the Moers Festival in 2018.
The group played a special acoustic performance at the Lab in May of 2016 a year before the album came out, but this show at the Great American Music Hall marks only the second time Oxbow has played live in San Francisco since the release of The Thin Black Duke. While the band has been working on new material for its next effort, Robinson has ended up in the spotlight recently due to his outspoken criticism of the now disgraced and under investigation Silicon Valley media company Ozy Media where he worked for years as an editor and regular contributor. He has also branched out with his own online subscription newsletter, Look What You Made Me Do featuring writing that details his contentious stint with the company as well as other essays on culture and his own recent brush with death over nearly fatal gastrointestinal issues.
Writer and punk provocateur Lydia Lunch occupies a similarly broad artistic space as Robinson. As the guitarist and singer of pioneering NYC noise/no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks — a group she started with James Chance, who would later form the Contortions and James White and the Blacks — Lunch was at the epicenter of the city’s underground experimental music scene in the late ’70s. She would also become the frequent subject of no-wave documentary and avant-garde filmmakers Vivienne Dick and Scott B and Beth B.
Lunch would go on to release a string of solo recordings, collaborating with the likes of Nick Cave and the Birthday Party, LA-based punk band the Weirdos, Swans guitarist Michael Gira and members of Sonic Youth, as well as establishing herself as a writer, poet and an important figure on New York’s spoken word and performance art landscape.
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While Lunch has focused more of her later career on spoken word and writing, She returned to music with a vengeance in the past decade when she started fronting her all-star aggregation Lydia Lunch Retrovirus. Featuring powerhouse drummer Bob Bert (Pussy Galore, Chrome Cranks Sonic Youth), bassist Tim Dahl of the NYC experimental noise and free jazz/noise guitarist Weasel Walter (The Flying Luttenbachers, Burmese, Cellular Chaos), the high-octane group has toured on both sides of the Atlantic and released several live recordings.
Lunch was also the subject of the new documentary film Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over that came out earlier this year directed by Beth B. She visited San Francisco last August to appear at a Roxy Theater screening for the film as well as a spoken word engagement at the Make-Out Room with Robinson and Bay Area author Bob Calhoun.
Opening the show will be veteran punk-rock power trio Victims Family. With a partnership dating back over three decades, guitarist/vocalist Ralph Spight and bassist Larry Boothroyd have been making a uniquely hectic jazz-punk noise as the core of Victims Family since forming the band in 1984 when they were just a couple of scrawny Santa Rosa teenagers.
Bringing together the lyrical venom of the Dead Kennedys and the eclectic punk virtuosity of The Minutemen and NoMeansNo, Victims Family created a ferocious stew of hardcore, jazz, metal, funk and math rock with original drummer Devon VrMeer. Embracing the DIY punk ethos of the time, the young trio booked its first national tour in 1985, honing its chops while sharing the stage with such bands as NOFX, Tales of Terror, the aforementioned DKs and Social Unrest.
The band issued its debut album Voltage and Violets on Mordam Records the following year, unleashing Spight’s vitriolic social commentary on salvos like “Homophobia” and “God, Jerry, & The P.M.R.C.” in addition to writing likely the only instrumental tribute to jazz guitarist George Benson ever performed by a punk band. Victims’ follow-up effort Things I Hate To Admit further refined the group’s sound with more ear-pleasing, barbed wire hooks on such future fan favorites as “World War IX” and “Corona Belly.”
VrMeer’s departure to start a family led to his short-term replacement by Eric Strand before roadie Tim Solyan stepped in and completed what many consider to be the band’s classic line-up. Victims Family crafted what still stands as one of the outstanding punk albums of the decade with 1990’s White Bread Blues while furthering their reputation as a blistering live act with multiple U.S. and European tours, sharing the stage with the likes of Nirvana and Primus while having future stars Mr. Bungle and Green Day serve as opening acts.
The line-up released a second album, The Germ, in 1992. It was the band’s first effort for Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles imprint, but the grind of the road eventually led to a two-year hiatus. A reunion would produce another solid studio effort (Headache Remedy) and a live album that captured Victims’ volatile onstage chemistry before Spight and Boothroyd moved on to band projects Saturn’s Flea Collar (with the bassist switching to drums) and Hellworms (another trio that featured Bluchunks/Walrus drummer Joaquin Spengemann).
Victims Family put out one more album with yet another drummer — Apocalicious in 2001 featuring My Name drummer David Gleza behind the kit — before the principles moved on to explore other creative outlets. Spight would front his own band The Freak Accident in addition to anchoring Biafra’s lauded new band The Guantanamo School of Medicine on guitar, while Boothroyd would tour and record extensively with celebrated experimental outfit Triclops!, though he eventually would be brought in to play bass with Biafra’s band.
Still, semi-regular Victims Family reunions bringing Solyan back into the fold often find fans traveling long distances to catch another brutal live set. The trio embarked on a brief string of dates in 2019, playing three dates in the Bay Area followed by three more in the Pacific Northwest with Portland, OR-based punk band Nasalrod. While the band has yet to release what would be its first new album in two decades since putting out the “Have a Nice Day” 7-inch single in 2012, followers are still sure to gather in numbers when they play this rare live show.
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Lydia Lunch Retrovirus with Oxbow and Victims Family
Saturday, Nov. 27, 8 p.m. $25
Great American Music Hall
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