by Mike Corrigan
There was a time, you may recall, when rock had become boring, watered down, safe. The clean-and-sanitized-for-your-comfort plan opted for by the recording industry was killing the music of teen rebellion. Something had to be done. Someone, or something had to smash it, destroy convention and expectation in order to put the fun and danger back into rock. And then, out of nowhere (as it always does) the revolution came a-calling, serving notice that we're not gonna take it. No, we ain't gonna take it. In fact, we're not gonna take it anymore.
This could well be a story about the Ramones or Nirvana. But it isn't. It could be set during one of rock's past dark ages, but it's not. It's about Andrew W.K. And the time is now. And while this rock 'n' roll agitator shares little stylistic or thematic common ground with either of those groundbreaking bands, his passion for sweat-drenched rock primitivism and his crusade to get a party going is commendable in these days when advertising good looks and a willingness to play by the rules are the requirements for mainstream success. Andrew W.K. (who performs an all-ages gig at Club Soda Saturday night) represents a paradigm shift, whether he planned it that way or not.
"This music is not a reaction," he asserts emphatically. "I don't want to be reactionary, especially about things I don't like. I'd rather react to things I like. I feel pretty happy and pretty lucky. I don't see any real problems with music, not that that's anything I could fix anyway. I just want to make fun, exciting music right now."
Sporting long, stringy black hair and beard stubble, a dirty white T-shirt, white jeans, white cross trainers and busting out high-kicking, crotch-splitting moves like David Lee Roth in his prime, Andrew W.K.'s anti-look and adrenalized stage presence have earned him devotees all over the globe. He's played a gig at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame that was televised on MTV, and his songs are featured in everything from expedia.com TV ads to Jackass: The Movie.
"Clearly, this is pretty wacko," Andrew agrees. "It really is. And I know that. And I'll see it on TV and think to myself, this is really, really weird. I can't believe we're able to do this."
California-born and Michigan-bred, 23-year-old Andrew W.K. (the "W.K." stands for "Wilkes Krier," his parent's surnames) began classical piano lessons at a young age and eventually played in numerous Detroit-area punk and metal bands before taking his musical ambitions to New York City. With no backing band, he began performing (with just a keyboard, CD player and microphone) and recording demos that were circulated among a few record labels. He released two EPs before assembling a full-time band (drummer Donald "D.T." Tardy, bassist Gregg R. and guitarists Jimmy Coup, E. Payne and Sergeant Frank). In 2001, after the U.K. press got a whiff and went nuts over the W.K. party-hard message, the band signed a deal with Island Records.
Musically, Andrew W.K. specializes -- cripes, fixates would be a better word -- in balls-out, hammer-down, driving pop metal -- catchy '80s butt rock awash in cheesy new wave synths. Yet these anthemic calls to party like there really is no tomorrow are somehow irresistible. And there's no denying the power of Andrew's goofball charisma. His debut album for Island, I Get Wet is packed with head-banging titles such as "It's Time to Party," "Party Hard," "Party Till You Puke," "Don't Stop Living in the Red." Is there a pattern here? And just how does Andrew W.K. get the party going anyway?
"It's wide open," he explains. "In our party, you don't have to do anything you don't want. If you want to drink you can, if you don't want to drink, you don't have to. If you want to dance, you can, if you don't want to, no one is gonna make fun of you, if do dance no one is gonna say the dance you're doing is stupid. All that stuff. You don't have to look a certain way. There's no right music to play and wrong music to play. It should be like you and three of your best friends hanging out. I just want people to feel the best about themselves as possible. Even if that means they think they're better than me. I'd rather have them think that than feel bad. We try to eliminate personal struggle so that you can just be. It's very hard, but it's certainly a goal we have."
Despite his claim that he's not interested in saving rock 'n' roll (if, in fact, it even needs saving), Andrew's unselfconscious dedication to exciting music and devotion to the removal of walls between performer and audience is refreshing -- and in a small way, revolutionary.
"The people who come to our shows really seem to be to be the best people I've ever met," he says. "They are the reason for it. And the efforts to include people in this have worked, giving them a sense that they are a part of this beyond just observing, that they count and that how they feel really matters. I think the decision to care takes courage, whether that's in a love relationship or with your friends or with life in general. It takes strength. And I hope that people can find the strength to be passionate and to believe in things. The world is not full of misery. It's what we make it. And we're not going to spend our time complaining, we're gonna do something -- and give it the best shot we can."
Blues as a Base -- Categorizing Taj Mahal as a blues artist is like trying to scratch a diamond with a feather. When he debuted with a more or less traditional acoustic blues album in 1968, Mahal must have seemed like a throwback during a time when the prevailing winds in the industry blew in a decidedly electric direction. No one could have predicted then how influential he would soon become.
Mahal led fans, critics and contemporary popular music forward by introducing the full complement of African-American musical styles into his work. With the tenacity of a researcher and the casual clarity of the best instructor, Mahal has been able to popularize the totality of Americana -- blues, folk, jazz, calypso, R & amp;B, gospel and reggae -- in a way that is soulful and sincere, and without sounding preachy or sanctimonious. The Grammy-winning performer, along with his backing band (Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums), makes not one but three stops in the Inland Northwest this week.
Taj Mahal was born Henry St. Clair Fredericks on May 17, 1942, to musical parents. His father was a jazz pianist, composer and arranger. His mother was a schoolteacher who sang in a gospel choir. While growing up in Springfield, Mass., Mahal got his first taste of world music via his father's shortwave radio, which brought in stations from London, Havana, Kingston and around the globe. But it would be the American blues of artists like Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Mississippi John Hurt that would get Mahal's perfomance mojo working.
Renaming himself after the most recognizable man-made structure in the world -- he says it came to him in a dream -- Mahal put together his first band, Taj Mahal and the Elektras. After graduating from college in 1964, Mahal moved to L.A. and teamed up with fellow guitarist Ry Cooder to form the Rising Sons. Their debut single for Columbia was deemed uncommercial (read: too progressive) by the label and shelved, bringing on the dissolution of the group and facilitating Mahal's transition to solo artist. After his self-titled debut album and its immediate follow-ups (The Natch'l Blues and Giant Step) triggered renewed interest in traditional blues, Mahal went headlong into uncharted territories, bringing his discoveries to a wide popular audience. After a thorough exploration of blues forms, he developed a deep appreciation for Caribbean sounds -- an appreciation that carries over to this day. Later, he even delved into Hawaiian music.
The only thing predictable about the 60-year-old Taj Mahal is his continued unpredictability. In fact, the only way to divine where this legendary interpreter of all things soulful may go next is to close your eyes, spin the globe and put your finger down. Then all you have to do is let the master take you there.