Whirling and writhing under an American flag, armed with a guitar, a theremin, a microphone and his own distinctive tones, Jon Spencer spent over an hour on the Manning Bar’s stage waging a very public war against the twin forces of time and mundanity. With each demented, delirious tune Spencer and his long-suffering allies Judah Bauer and Russell Simins seemed to be actively peeling back the years, in the process transforming from three casually attired men into three bona fide, unashamed rock and roll musicians of the very highest order.
Songs constantly rear-ended each other, piling up into twisted, jagged heaps. A version of 2 Kindsa Love, a number that will resonate for Australian audiences who remember Spencer’s (literally) destructive performance on ABC’s Recovery, lasted for only half its usual running time, mutating into a sped up version of Do The Get Down, the near-perfect tune that sits at the centre of his most recent album.
Indeed, soon the set took on the quality of an extended medley. The speed at which Spencer chewed his way through the oft acerbic lyrics of his own back catalogue was breathtaking; scatting and spitting, he seemed then like a slam poet on speed, barking out White Jesus’ caustic rhymes and flinging himself back from his Theremin as though the thing had given him a ten thousand volt shock.
True highlights of the show included a blistering version of Very Rare, a song defined by Spencer and Bauer’s duelling guitar work. Indeed, their riffs began to feel like two drunk drivers barrelling circles around each other, flirting with contact and bloody impact. Wax Dummy was another genuine delight, with Spencer’s distinctive dance move – a kind of buckling of the knees that looks like the effects of a seizure localised to the legs – proving hypnotic.
Nonetheless, the show was plagued by a fairly insistent problem: though any rock and roll gig comes with its requisite number of drunken trouble makers, the crowd at the Manning Bar was two parts aggressive, beer addled buffoon to one part normal gig goer. The space by the front of the stage had become uninhabitable by the mid-point of the show, with two fairly serious fights breaking out, and one particularly tall, particularly obnoxious individual barreling heavily into people.
That said, one cannot blame Spencer, Bauer or Simmins for the drunken audience, and the behaviour of a few idiots ultimately became insignificant when compared with the quality of musicianship on stage. Indeed, the drunks down the front could take a lesson from Spencer, a man who has spent his career channeling his energy not into abrasion, but into creativity. As loud and as confrontational as his music gets, Spencer’s particular brand of anger feels a lot like love, and the defining moment of the gig was the oh so brief interchange between Spencer and an awe-struck young woman in the middle of the mosh pit. His eyes caught hers, hers caught his, and Spencer struck out his fist high into the air; a gesture not of violence, but of solidarity.