Forget Deliverance, Reservoir Dogs, or The Man -- the single most excruciating scene in American cinematic history appears in Ghost World, the 2001 indie flick about elitist post-high-school hipster chicks grappling with the inevitable chumpness of the world around them and (occasionally) banging Steve Buscemi. For those who've seen it, the excruciating part can be summed up in one word: Blueshammer.
At one point Buscemi takes sorta-paramour Thora Birch to see an obscure, deified, capital-B Blues singer, but it turns out that he's the thankless opening act, stuck playing in a garish sports bar full of uninterested doofuses impatiently awaiting the headliner. That'd be Blueshammer, the most hilariously horrifying entity in the Hollywood canon, a bunch of lily-white frat dorks who leap onstage, holler something about taking it back to the Delta blues, and launch into a hideous, tuneless, sub-Stevie Ray Vaughan blues-rock abomination with lyrics about picking cotton.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, beware.
BRMC -- a band with a name this ridiculous needs an acronym, I don't care what Marlon Brando movie it's from -- began in San Francisco and fled soon thereafter to Los Angeles. England was where it truly flourished, since it emulated Brit noise-pop gods like Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain in an effort to project what the English think American rock bands should look and sound like: disaffected leather-clad badasses fond of amp-demolishing sonics and onstage volatility. NME adores these dudes, whereas we Yanks, other than throwing 2001's so-so alt-rock single "Love Burns" a little airplay, have mostly shrugged.
But with its third and latest record, Howl, the He-Man Women-Haters Club has taken an abrupt turn southward, embracing what a Blues Brothers character described as both kinds of music: country and western. "Ti-i-i-i-ime won't save my soul," begins opener "Shuffle Your Feet" in gospel a cappella, before settling into a stomp-clap rhythm. Tracks include "Restless Sinner," "Devil's Waitin'," and most explicitly, "Gospel Song." Acoustic guitars dominate; harmonica solos abound. Lyrical motifs: Jesus, sin, prison, Dad.
A great deal of this is a terribly awkward cultural masquerade, a problem that was only magnified at a recent live show in the San Francisco Bay Area. Co-frontman Peter Hayes sauntered out solo with an acoustic and drawled his way through "Devil's Waitin'" (the prison one). "'Love Burns!'" shouted a restless audience member as Pete strapped on the hands-free Bob Dylan harmonica thing -- a priceless visual accessory for the budding folk-rocker -- for the fingerpicked black-coffee ballad "Faultline." The whole band then joined in for a couple ramshackle country-rock tunes, train-wrecking into "Ain't No Easy Way," a slide-guitar and harmonica square dance that false-started multiple times due to monitor issues.
The band soldiered on, finally mastering "Ain't No Easy Way" and loping through the piano ballad "Promise," in which co-frontman Robert Levon Been took over vocals and Peter laid down a mean trombone. The crowd was having none of this Howl-floggin' and only happily stirred, nine songs in, when the Pudding of the Month Club cut the Americana crap and launched into "Love Burns." The intensity ramped accordingly, the band morphing back into badass-bluster mode -- buoyed by vicious, serpentine bass lines, BRMC's one prominent strength -- which turned older tunes like "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll" into the set's first high points. The drummer finally got to do something, and so did the crowd.
Essentially, BRMC was its own lousy opening band, one that'd periodically sneak back onstage for down-home Howl tunes that, even at their best, sounded like those U2 B-sides painfully striving to transform themselves into gospel hymns. The further the set strayed from churchy, prefab Houses of Cash, the better it got, but inevitably we'd be dragged back. It finally ended with "Open Invitation," a hidden Howl track aiming for the funereal, meditative effect of, oh, your average Wilco ballad.