Friday Night: Batusis At Mango's

Batusis feat. Sylvain Sylvain and Cheetah Chrome Mango's December 10, 2010

"Everything was as it always had been ... the years were a mirage and there had been no years," E.B. White once wrote, describing the collapse of time. This is what Batusis effortlessly evoked at Mango's, that ever-shifting building, now the color of a yogurt smoothie, down in the nook of sweaty midnight Montrose.

Throughout the years, the place has hosted divergent bands, from street-punks Ann Beretta and homegrown East Texas visionary Daniel Johnston to recent post-hardcore postures from This Month in Black History, but this night was all pure rock and roll pastiche - not some jukebox heroes mimicking the past, but a soulful mishmash taking anxious listeners from dirty Cleveland to Gotham City heroin alley, from glam punk to mondo surf, all within an explosive hour.

When the New York Dolls last graced Houston at the House of Blues, Rocks Off's Craig Hlavaty suggested that the band lacked fervor and backbone, and were outrocked by opener Black Joe Lewis. Many audience members disagreed.

Meanwhile, the few of us who saw Cheetah Chrome devastate Rudyard's with Rocket from the Tombs years back likely thought he was scrunched-in by mutant bird-voiced David Thomas and the rubbery guitar fingering of cohort Richard Lloyd, once of Television fame. This time, though, Chrome took full reign, complimented by the casual flair and finesse of Sylvain Sylvain.

Sure, the rock-solid rhythm section culled from The Cult and Joan Jett's Blackhearts hit their marks, but most eyes kept to the twin guitar prize. Anyone who didn't want to get neck-deep and romp through the classics should have stuck to some skinny-pants band mimicking third-generation Gang of Four at another club.

This crowd wanted to feel the pathos, heavy-duty gyration and unbound electricity of "I Want to be Loved" by the Heartbreakers and "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys, which still feel hinged to a year-zero punk attitude, when rebel rock and rollers both erased and idolized the past at the same schizophrenic time.

Jaded people will shrug off these gestures as par for the dinosaur-rock course. They tag it as bar-rock ruckus meant to pay the rent of has-beens, but that misses the whole point. Classic punk bands always played covers.

The Sex Pistols drilled down into the back catalogs of Small Faces, Jonathan Richman, the Monkees and others. The Clash never killed off Chuck Berry, despite Joe Strummer's T-shirt sloganeering.

So when Batusis offers up a charming, laid-back, and even lilting version of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," the vibe conjured up the beginnings of a musical movement that led them down a path of constant sorrow. Oh yeah, don't forget that Joy Division and Slaughter and the Dogs covered the Velvets too.

To hell with the fetish for new and polished sounds, they seemed to urge: I want my rock messy, not manicured. Aftermath too. We want it to tap into "original joy," that quality once described to us by Wayne Kramer himself when pressed to describe what exactly keeps him connected to being a nine-year-old boy hearing Chuck Berry for the first time.

Batusis didn't offer truckloads of surprises, sure, but they did revel in that joy, which wormed through originals like the molasses swagger of "What You Lack in Brains," the crunchy and cynical political romp of "Bury You Alive" (about the lies of war), plus the instrumental thunder of "Blues Theme." These were smoothly juxtaposed to the look-back-and-wink percussive percolations of Dolls standards like "Trash" and "Jet Boy," which still leave lipstick traces.

To wrap up their sleazy Texas trek, they recycled a television pop ditty - the Batman theme song once coveted by The Jam as well - that rear-ended into a long blistering stab at "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," turning the Beatles' version into dust.

Short, stout, and sometimes stunning, the night felt like a family affair to the eager but modest crowd that awaited every exhortation, especially the tattooed young gals who caught Sylvain's unwearied eye. Kick out the jams, motherfuckers.

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