Words by Brian O’Neill | Photos by Tashina Byrd
Linnéa Olsson previously played with Beastmilk and Grave Pleasures, bands that excelled at Goth rock played by and for metalheads. Maggot Heart, a solo project by her own estimation, is more like old school punk-infused high octane rock and roll that’s for everyone.
The band’s short supporting set merged the rhythmic brutality of The Jesus Lizard with raw riffs and a sense of abandon not unlike the first bands to turn hard rock into punk rock. The darker, post-punk undertones that can be heard on last year’s Dusk to Dusk debut were not as prevalent from the Philly stage, lost in the band’s unbridled enthusiasm to, as Olsson said during the set, play as loud as they could without feeding back. Mission accomplished.
Kate Clover also found her way back to punk rock’s roots despite being better known for something else entirely. In her case it was with ExSage who played desert-sludge befitting the band’s west coast homeland before taking a hiatus. Her hand-picked backing band looked like The Clash wound up at Studio 54 and did their best to fit in with mixed results but the bouncer let ‘em in anyway. The music was more like what was being played a few miles south: They nicely approximated the time Johnny Thunders was in the Heartbreakers and Debbie Harry was breaking hearts in the days before CBGBs became an overpriced haberdashery.
Clover tapped into the era’s underrepped melody and overblown drama – and even went farther back covering “Funnel of Love” from the queen of rockabilly Wanda Jackson – but not the inherent danger. And that was okay – better than just okay, actually. Some might derisively decry that as a sign of our sanitized times, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with punk rock being rambunctious and effervescent and fun.
It was a little odd to have two retro-rock acts support King Dude but it also makes perfect sense and not just because the headliner and Clover recently released a duet. Honestly, since nobody really knows what to do with King Dude may as well have two punkettes join his junket. They get to relive rock’s halcyon days and party like it’s 1979 before TJ Cowgill ushers in Armageddon.
Tales of good and evil are intoned in a stately baritone that channels Nick Cave’s sense of foreboding into his own brand of storytelling. The parables seem about seeking light in the darkness but actually come off more about celebrating the darkness. “Hell is white,” he drones during “Twin Brother of Jesus,” Sometimes things are not as cut and dried as they may seem.
There is a cottage industry of so-called dark folk purveyors, but seeing King Dude in concert shows how little he has in common with his peers and how much more he is a natural extension of Johnny Cash at his most morose and he knew a thing or two about the otherworldly battle for his soul.
It’s not all minimalism though. “Velvet Rope” was a smoky lounge numbers with the sexy tickle of ivories an important foil to his guitar. “Dead before the Chorus” was a thrashed-out attack from the cramped Kung Fu Necktie stage, like Iggy Pop jamming with Bauhaus. The haunting background vocals of bassist Lee Newman befit a man who has collaborated with a handful of female singers over the years.
After a lot of encouragement from the crowd he came out alone and accompanied himself on piano for the stark “God Like Me.” Then Kate Clover was summoned from the crowd to join him for a version of their duet “Crazy” that emotionally drained the performers as well as the audience. Finally, still sans band, he went back to his guitar for “Lucifer’s the Light of the World,” the ultimate contradiction in how these universal tropes are usually viewed, which turned into a riotous singalong for the audience.
On King Dude’s recordings Cowgill either turns cosmic spiritual “truths” on their ears or paints intimate portraits of personal struggles. From the stage he ties it all together, placing the tribulations everyone faces alone as actors within the eternal battle between good and evil. Everyone has a role to play including Cowgill himself, who fiddles while everything burns knowing there is salvation in the ashes.