Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds
The Deaf Institute, Manchester
22nd March 2013
After attempting to meet up with Kid Congo Powers all week via transatlantic pigeon post, I was left crestfallen in the final hour when his tour manager told me there were already too many interviews scheduled before the gig.
My opening question would have asked how he kept enthused about music after 35 years, so when I walked into the venue and saw him stood non-descript at the bar watching the support band I got my answer in a roundabout way. Rather than pander to the ego and get distracted talking about music, just open your ears and listen. He seemed transfixed and nobody even noticed him he was that inconspicuous. I know of very few musicians who are this attentive let alone present in the crowd before their own gigs especially if they’ve been playing for so many years.
I was also going to ask if playing with so many groups, instead of the one mainstay had kept things interesting. What a stupid question. Imagine founding the Gun Club, joining The Cramps, becoming a Bad Seed and collaborating with countless other side projects with Flesh Eaters and Sonic Youth members to name but a few. Then, one day suddenly thinking hang on a sec, this is getting a bit samey, I think I might try accounting now. It was probably for the best that the interview didn’t happen.
Still, when the support set finished I struck up some fan boy courage, aided by my close proximity to the bar and accosted him for a brief chat. He was polite, affable and the coolest idol I’ve ever been close enough to fawn over. Always greet your heroes.
As they took to the stage I noticed Bobby Gillespie in attendance and wondered when the last time he set his bands gear up onstage was which is exactly what Powers and his Pink Monkey Birds were doing for at least 20 minutes. They took their time with all the nonchalance of a band who knew they didn’t need the smoke and mirrors of a big rock show to prove their credentials.
The Monkey Birds are a tight band and took a few initial sound problems and technical difficulties later on in the set in their stride. Kid took these potentially awkward moments where less charismatic bandleaders would freeze, and used them to his advantage ad libbing bizarre songs and recalling anecdotes including a tale about hitchhiking with a very spaced out Sky Saxon when he was younger.
The sound of Kid Congo’s previous incarnations, with the exception of electro duo Kid and Khan, is heavily indebted to early R & B, 60’s Garage bands, Latino doo wop, girl groups, rockabilly and anything else with slap-back that is exotic enough to Go-Go dance to. Add his charisma and charm to this gumbo pot of sonic disorder and you have a great showman somewhere between Screaming Jay Hawkins and Link Wray. His eyes roll to the back of his head whilst his shoulders keep a tribal beat of their own and he actually does look just like an Elvis from Hell.
He performs songs from the first two Monkey Bird records Dracula Boots (2009) and Gorilla Rose (2011) as well as some new stuff, including new single Conjure Man and a standout track called Haunted Head which is from the forthcoming LP of the same name. Jeffrey Lee Lewis taught him how to play in open E tuning which allows for a more rudimentary style of playing chord shapes. I was amazed that after so many years he can be writing such brilliant new material with this method unchanged.
In a recent interview, Kid Congo said that he admired Wild Billy Childish because of the prolific and ingenious ways he takes familiar sounds and chord progressions and moulds something unique with them without venturing into pastiche. Like Childish, simplicity seems to be the best process for the Pink Monkey Birds. One of the hardest things for groups to do is write a brilliantly simple song because it’s all been done before. There can be more space and layered complexity in a rock & roll gem than in a prog concerto and Kid Congo ascertains this claim paying homage to Green Fuzz, many of his former bands and a plethora of Chicano rockabilly groups that you can only hear on a battered jukebox in an old dive somewhere on Route 66. And yet he still sounds like no one but himself.
Predictably, it was the Gun Club numbers that got the best reaction from the crowd. Jack on Fire, She’s Like Heroin and For the Love of Ivy got people frothing at the mouth, myself included. After each one he thanked his friend Jeff with a sweet reverence. Then he played I’m Cramped just to remind you how many influential groups he’s been a part of.
By the end of the night the crowd was in the palm of his hand screaming for a second encore. The power died on all the amps but instead of walking off the group stayed onstage so they could eventually send the crowd ballistic playing As Rare As The Yeti.
Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds are a rarity also. You are more likely to catch a sighting of a Sasquatch in trendy Dalston than you are to see a musician of Kid Congo’s calibre who shares and understands an audience’s passion for live music. I was one of the lucky few who left the place raving about what I’ve just seen to bemused hipsters in a kebab shop. Even if they didn’t believe me I knew what I’d just seen and I’m proud of joining the crazies in declaring that Rock & Roll is not extinct.