Last Night: The Slits and Friends at Numbers

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The Slits, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, Future Virgins, ShellShag Numbers March 10, 2008

Better than: Wallowing in self pity wishing you were an "industry" person so you’d have somewhere to be on a Monday night.

Download: Shellshag’s Happiness and Slits debut The Cut, which turns 30 next year. While you’re at it, get Slits frontwoman Ari Up’s 2005 solo album, Dread More Dan Dead.

ShellShag is a charismatic Brooklyn-based two piece, comprised of Shell (aka Shellhead, real name John Driver, native Texan and ex-member of 50 Million) on guitar and vocals and Jen Shag on drums and vocals. Had the White Stripes neglected to indulge their blues influences, and grown up anywhere but Detroit, they’d look like ShellShag. Sort of. SS’s stage setup is dead on – they play facing one another – but their MO is something completely different.

Jen Shag works with a minimal rig that includes sleigh bells fixed to her pants, and plays standing up, occasionally moving out to work the crowd. Watching a song or two makes you wonder if she’s ever been able to sit behind a drum kit at all. ShellShag is a fast and loose whirlwind of stops and starts, and in gentler moments like "Magnet," their set up results in a performance resembling a conversation, leaving the audience feeling like welcome eavesdroppers.

Even "Shut Up," the only glaring weak spot on debut Destroy Me, I’m Yours, was transformed by the band’s live mojo Monday. And it was nigh impossible to keep a straight face during their cover of When In Rome’s "The Promise" near the beginning of the set, a move which drew a proverbial line in the sand: anyone who came to see The Slits and was stonewalling "that band with the weird name" either snapped into step or resumed hiding in a dark corner to wait for the headliners.

Next up was Pensacola’s Future Virgins. My first introduction to this band was between misplaced openers Sad Pygmy and ShellShag, when I met FV’s lead vocalist, Ashley, who told me he was basically a glorified roadie for the Slits (Note: This was not a complaint.) Ashley took a stab at convincing me that Future Virgins were a bunch of Floridian rubes who somehow woke up on tour with these other bands.

In actuality, they share Pensacola and an association with Plan It X South with This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, and Ashley met Shell during their tenure in San Francisco. Long story short: Future Virgins play loud, good-times punk rock, have listened to their share of Buzzcocks records and were easily the night’s most pleasant surprise.

This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb took the crown for loudest band on the bill, and fit perfectly between Future Virgins and The Slits. They’re still firmly rooted in punk, just not the bottle-throwing brand practiced by FV. Their set was painfully tight, 100 percent downhill momentum.

Maybe it was just her immaculate dreads, but Ari Up came out looking like royalty. Then again, when you’ve played in what was probably the first all-female punk band (and certainly the first major all female punk band), assimilated dub reggae into first wave punk alongside bands like Public Image Ltd., came out of the gate with the jagged guitars and skin-cracking arrangements later perfected by Gang of Four and aped by 21st-century bands who missed the boat, you don’t need a head full of dreads to look like royalty.

From "Typical Girls" on, The Slits were locked in. The drums sounded like a dub groove machine, the guitars and keyboards stabbed and, as Ari Up said, "The bass is joyous." Not nearly enough has been written about the unholy and outright fear dub can provoke in those who lack a fundamental understanding of its soul.

One or two people lurking near the back obviously expected some sort of classic "chick punk" band, but what they got was a crash course in what happened between "Anarchy in the U.K" and New Wave: Which "punk" is yours: Johnny Rotten or John Lydon? "Problems" or "Albatross"? Which is the bigger "fuck you": Cursing on national television or playing "Flowers of Romance" on Top of the Pops?

The Slits sounded great. They weren’t overpowering, shamanistic or really all that iconoclastic, just a damn good time. Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt still have the music in their marrow. Critics have basically panned everything The Slits have done since Cut, which may be fair, but one can’t help but wonder how much of the poor reception is based in expectations. The band has chosen to be who they are as opposed to what they were, and anyone who grasps that got more than their money’s worth Monday night.

Personal Bias: British print journalist Simon Reynolds’ book Rip It Up and Start Again makes the assertion that post punk is far more dangerous than punk ever was. I buy this hook, line and sinker.

Random Detail: Thanks to Ashley from Future Virgins, I learned that Shell’s dad is actually Wade Driver, famous square-dance caller and Woodlands resident. Mr. Driver was in attendance and, so far as I saw, stayed from the first band through the last.

By the Way: Someone should really start doing dub sound system stuff in Houston, and if it’s already going on, someone should tell me where. - Chris Henderson

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