The Voodoo Chile's Slight Return
For decades, Houston's music scene has been a net exporter of talent, and while there have recently been some signs that the trend is slowing, we still have lost some significant talents in the past three or four years. One of the last of these was Greg Ashley, singer-guitarist in the League City psych-rock band the Mirrors. While still in town, his band released a vinyl album (A Green Dream) and a CD (13 Patient Flowers) on Fleece Records, the label run by Sound Exchange's Kurt Brennan.
In 2002, Ashley moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he signed to Birdman Records, got called a "star" by Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, and released one well-received record under his own name (Medicine Fuck Dream) and another under the handle the Gris Gris, whose Dr. John-inspired album title caused San Francisco Weekly to bill him as "The Voodoo Chile."
He's also played a couple of homecoming gigs -- I caught one Gris Gris show last year where Ashley, seated throughout the show and playing a cheap-looking acoustic guitar and singing into a decrepit-looking mike -- quite simply tore Rudyard's to shreds. That gig culminated in his epic slide-guitar meltdown "Best Regards"; Ashley snatched a Shiner Bock bottle off the stage and tore into the strings like they'd been talking shit about his girlfriend, and it was one of those moments where you kinda expect the club to levitate a little bit.
He's coming back again, but this time he's gonna be reuniting with his old mates in the Mirrors. (Birdman's CD rerelease of 13 Patient Flowers helped offer an impetus.) In contrast to his solo album and his stuff with the Gris Gris, which both encompass Os Mutantes-inspired tropicalia and Leonard Cohen-ish folk influences, the Mirrors -- at least on A Green Dream -- reflect more of a heavy early psychedelic rock groove à la the 13th Floor Elevators at their most howlingly chaotic and psychotically ferocious.
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I caught up with Ashley and Mirrors drummer Tom Lee -- both slightly hungover from the night before -- just as they were about to cross the Canadian border en route from Buffalo/Rochester to a show in Detroit. First things first: Has Ashley gotten the California big head since moving out to the Left Coast? "Yeah," says Lee with a laugh. "He's always trying to get Jamba Juice and he loves that Mexi-Fresh food or whatever you call it."
Lee's joking, but it is something of an issue. Not so much the California thing, but the fact that Ashley is better known as the Gris Gris and under his own name. "Everything's advertised under one of those names," Ashley says. Still, he says, the band members have all been friends since grade school, so the billing's not that big a deal. "The tour's been fuckin' cool," he says. "There've been some good shows, good times, and it's good to be on the road with everyone I've known forever. It's easy for us to get along and fuckin' party."
He says that New York City was the highlight of the tour, even though their show was on a Thursday, while the Boss's hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, was the worst. "It was at a bowling alley, which fuckin' sucked," he says. "We couldn't find a place to stay, so we were driving around forever and most of us were drunk. They told us not to stay near the club, 'cause it was in the 'hood and our shit would get ripped off. So we drove and drove and there were no vacancies anywhere. We ended up sleeping in the van at a rest area."
This is actually Ashley's third tour with the Mirrors. In 2001 they headed up the West Coast, which worked out well, and a few months later they gallivanted through the Deep South, with results that were grim by comparison. Might this be the last?
"We'll just see what happens next year. Maybe we'll do it again next summer. I'm out in California, and everybody else is still in school in Texas, so it may just be this one time. It was kinda like, 'Birdman rereleased the record, everybody's not doing anything for the summer, we might as well have a fun trip together that pays for itself.' We'll just have fun. Maybe next year we'll do it again and just go to the West Coast, which we're not hitting this time around."
Meanwhile, Ashley's just finished recording his next Gris Gris album. For that project, instead of taking his Texas band to California, he brought his California band to Texas. "The new record will be out on, like, October 27 or 28, I think. We recorded it all at this cabin of my parents' near Centerville, Texas. We went up there for the first three months of the year and just recorded and played together."
MEET ZIPPERNECK, MOJO DOJO'S FAVORITE BAND
On the recommendation of Press colleague William Michael Smith, I caught Zipperneck, an excellent new garage/punk/roots rock trio that played at the Continental Club a couple of Wednesdays ago, on a night when the audience consisted solely of the hard-core regulars and the members of the other two bands on the bill.
Let me tell you, the rest of y'all are missing out. When they first took the stage, I told Smith there was something about the twentysomething singer-bassist -- the fierce, redheaded Mel Hell -- that reminded me of a young Wanda Jackson, whom I had seen on the same stage a year or so back. And once the band started ripping through what they call their "train wreck between the Clash and Loretta Lynn," the Jackson impression only deepened, though I also caught some strong reminders of Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde from that time before all her best bandmates smacked themselves into oblivion.
And Mel has bandmates every bit the equal of those guys: Drummer David Skins is one of those cats who seem to defy gravity behind the kit; tattooed, leather-clad guitarist J.D. can riff dirty chords like a Ramone and squeal harmonics like Billy G.; and all that's over the top of Hell's chudding bass and under her full-throated, alternately growling and wailing vocals. Song subjects ran the gamut from love laments ("My Heart Is M.I.A.") to cartoon villains ("Mojo Dojo").
The band came together through an ad (in the Press, they say). J.D. and Mel met first; the former was a veteran of the bands Tread, Bravo Three and Super Boy, while the latter had played with the Rumble Cats, which featured Phil Deville of New Orleans/Denver band Mustang Lightning, and was just coming off maternity leave after her first baby. The two enjoyed jamming together, but they still needed a drummer and a singer. Eventually Skins -- whose impressive résumé includes stints in the Big Boys, London Girl and Magnetic IV -- came aboard and Mel says she was forced into singing.
"We come from three distinct generations," says Skins on the patio at the Big Top after the show next door. "J.D. knew [Big Boys front man] Biscuit Turner back in the early '80s; I came along in the mid- to late '80s; [Mel's] a little bit younger than us. So we really bring three distinct elements, three different sources and sensibilities."
Skins says that hearing Hell sing was a case of love at first sound. "It was like early Joan Jett," he says. "I love women singers who don't sound girly. And Mel's nowhere near girly."
"Yeah, most of my influences are male bands, like the Clash," she says, though she does send some props toward one female rocker; yep, you guessed it, Wanda Jackson.
Recordings aren't in Zipperneck's immediate future, but the band's live shows should be in yours. In the meantime, you can hear some rough mixes at www.myspace.com/zipperneck.
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