Gig Report – The Tentacles at Oakland Arena

A piece of silliness inspired by Jeff VanderMeer.

I finally got to catch up with the latest rock sensation, The Tentacles, at the Oakland Arena last night. Following the astronomical success of their debut album, Mushroom Garden, the band’s current tour, featuring mainly songs from the follow-up Squid U Like disc, has been playing to sell-out audiences all over America. They could easily have filled the Coliseum, but opted instead for three nights at an indoor location, apparently for reasons of sound quality, although the official excuse is that the band did not want the orgone energy generated by their performance to escape into the atmosphere and cause chaos in nearby communities.

There is little doubt that the foundation of The Tentacles music is provided by Jeff Ford’s drums. Some critics have complained that Ford’s work is “not really rock’n’roll,” and it is true that he has provided percussion for such diverse musicians as the award-winning hip hop band, Empire Ice, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Nevertheless, his performances for The Tentacles are as necessary and reliable as the stream of beer bottles that roadies brought him during the gig, and which Ford would empty one of in a single gulp after each number.

Ford’s partner in the engine room of The Tentacles is bassist, Liz Hand. Often compared to Tina Weymouth, Hand is one of the driving creative forces of the band. Talking to their manager and chief publicist, Ann VanderMeer, before the gig, I discovered that it is Hand’s keen rock sensibility and fashion sense that has fused the often disparate talents of the individual band members into an effective and commercial whole.

Clad in her trademark black jeans and black Ramones t-shirt with the sleeves ripped out, Hand could easily be lost on stage had she not found some clever nanotech guru to make the tattoos on her arm glow and change color in synch with her guitar playing. I talked to the sound guy (gal?), Mars, after the gig and she (he?) confirmed that the signals from Hand’s guitar were also being fed into the lighting system. This band doesn’t just talk science fiction, it does it for real.

If anyone is invisible onstage it is the keyboardist, Kirsten Bishop. The diminutive Australian seems lost behind a vast bank of electronic equipment. However, on those rare and beautiful occasions when the band allows her to solo, she produces some of the strangest and most experimental sounds in their repertoire.

Anything but invisible is the band’s leader, and lead guitarist, Jeff VanderMeer. Clad in his traditional pirate outfit, a patch over one eye and a toy monkey on his shoulder, he is easily the most recognizable member of the band. VanderMeer has calmed down quite a bit since the early days of Mushroom Garden when his bursts of outrage at his music being compared to that of the British WeirdPunk movement bands, such as The Baa-Slags and Nova Swing, were the source of many colorful interviews in the rock press. Nevertheless, he still exhibits boundless energy, hopping manically around the stage and driving the band to further fits of musical extravagance.

And so, at last, we come to Hal Duncan. Much has been written about The Tentacles vocalist, and most of it nonsense. Some critics have claimed that his singing would be more understandable if he was sober. But have they ever seen him sober? I knew him quite well when he was fronting the Glasgow punk band, Spring Heeled Jack, and I’ve never seen him sober. I don’t know anyone else who has either. Besides, despite his mumbling accent and dance style that is reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux, he has an energy and charm that can’t help but get you excited. If you want to know what he’s singing, read the lyric sheet.

The band opened with their punked-up cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome”, Duncan ad-libbing additional Coleridge lines whenever he found a gap in the music. From then on it was all Tentacles numbers, and the variety of creative tensions within the band became clear. Only clever scheduling of the songs saves them from chaos. The one Hand number off the album, the dark and depressing “Generation Lost” (recently covered by Leonard Cohen), which hysterical tabloid newspapers have blamed for the suicide of a number of teenage goth girls, was wisely followed by several of Duncan’s 90-second Wire and Ramones-inspired pop tunes.

Some of VanderMeer’s compositions, such as the baroque “March of the Freshwater Squid” and the lengthy “Ballad of Martin Lake” are reminiscent of Emerson, Lake and Palmer at their most pretentious. However, he’s perfectly capable of producing fast-paced and catchy rock numbers, as evidenced by the band’s current hit single, “Veniss My Penis”. Duncan, meanwhile, intersperses a keen punk sensibility with moody and evocative songs such as “Descent”, a piece of Sumerian religious verse written for him by the rock poet, Catherynne Valente.

The encore was, of course, the smash hit “Orgone Rock”, the song that first brought the band to world wide attention. Whether, as Duncan claimed, we were all bathed in rays of irresistible sexual energy generated by the song, I can’t say. I didn’t see anyone in the audience copulating, though VanderMeer did claim to be able to see some from the stage. This morning’s Chronicle mentions a few desultory complaints about lewd behavior on BART after the gig, but I can’t confirm this. Kevin and I had taken the precaution of booking into the Oakland Marriott for the night, where we didn’t get much sleep.

(My apologies to Conrad Williams – I don’t know him well enough to write him in.)