Manhattan Beat: Ozomatli, Whiskey Myers, Buster Poindexter, The Flesh Eaters

Ozomatli/Mercury Lounge/March 14, 2019

In 1995, community activists attempted to establish a workers union within Los Angeles. They were unsuccessful in winning recognition, but they received an abandoned building for one month, which they converted into a cultural arts center. Musicians assembled and became Ozomatli, named after the Nahuatl word for the astrological symbol of the monkey, taken from the Aztec calendar. Over the ensuing years, the Grammy award-winning band maintained its activist platform, advocating for farm workers’ rights and immigration reform, and performing before protestors at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. In 2006, the U.S. State Department invited Ozomatli to serve as official Cultural Ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored international tours. Ozomatli also was the in-house band for the television show Gabriel Iglesias Presents Stand Up Revolution from 2012 to 2014. Ozomatli presently consists of vocalist/trumpet player Asdrubal Sierra, vocalist/guitarist Raul Pacheco, sax and clarinet player Ulises Bella, bassist Wil-Dog Abers, and percussionists Justin ‘El Niño’ Porée and Jiro Yamaguchi. The band’s eighth and most recent studio album is 2017’s Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica.

Ozomatli  headlined at Mercury Lounge as part of the venue’s 25th anniversary series. From its earliest days, Ozomatli earned a reputation for high-energy performances, and this performance showed that even after 23 years together the band remains a ferocious beast. Singing in both English and Spanish, Ozomatli blended musical styles inspired by salsa, cumbia, merengue, rhythm & blues, reggae, rap, and funk, infused with a party spirit. Keyboards and horns led most of the leads during the instrumental breaks, and a double dose of percussion fueled the fire. Some of the lyrics touched on socio-political themes, but others were just for fun, as in “oye baby, oye mami, ¿dónde está la after party (where is the after party)?” Ozomatli’s buoyant music spoke loudly to the joyful hearts and swinging hips of its primarily Latin audience.

Buster Poindexter/The Loft at City Winery/March 15, 2019

In the late 1960s, David Johansen was the lead singer of the Vagabond Missionaries, a band based in his home town of Staten Island. In the early 1970s, he became the lead singer and songwriter for the New York Dolls, a band that revolutionized the New York club scene but whose two albums failed to register with the general public. After the demise of the New York Dolls in 1976, Johansen launched a solo career. In the late 1980s, Johansen took on an alter ego, Buster Poindexter, and performed a cabaret mix of jazz, lounge, calypso, and novelty songs, and ultimately joined the house band on Saturday Night Live. Johansen acted in several films during the 1980s and 1990s, including Scrooged and Car 54, Where Are You? while also performing in clubs both as David Johansen and Buster Poindexter. From 2004 to 2011, Johansen led periodic reunions of the New York Dolls. In addition to local performances as either David Johansen or Buster Poindexter, Johansen also hosts a weekly satellite radio program, David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun.

More than halfway through his set at the Loft at City Winery, Johansen explained that he usually performs as either David Johansen or Buster Poindexter, but that tonight the audience would be treated to both personalities. Some songs were performed in Poindexter’s cabaret persona, and other more blaring songs brought out the Johansen rocker in him. While his audience would have been happy with either side of the entertainer, on this occasion he was probably more Johansen; he opened and closed his set with songs he sang with the original New York Dolls, and the majority of the remaining songs were from his catalog with the more recent Dolls lineups. Johansen/Poindexter embodied thoughtful lyrics in dark, slightly mysterious tones, backed by piano, guitar, bass, and drums. The net result was that Johansen was primarily a charismatic performer, and secondly a compelling stylist whose husky, gritty vocals just as easily jolted or entranced a listener.

Whiskey Myers/Irving Plaza/March 16, 2019

Cody Cannon was given an acoustic guitar by his grandfather. Inspired by southern rock and outlaw country music, Cannon and his friend Cody Tate began playing guitar together in Elkhart, Texas. In short time, they added John Jeffers and called themselves Lucky Southern. In pursuit of a professional music career, the three friends relocated to Tyler, Texas, and added a rhythm section consisting of Cannon’s cousin Gary Brown on bass (Jamey Gleaves replaced him in 2017) and their friend Jeff Hogg on drums. Renamed Whiskey Myers in 2007, the band played a blend of southern rock and outlaw country music on flatbed trailers at private parties in small East Texas towns until a debut album in 2008 led to national tours. Whiskey Myers has released four studio albums; the most recent, 2016’s Mud, introduced Tony Kent as the band’s newest member on percussion.

At Irving Plaza, Whiskey Myers looked very much like an old-school southern rock and outlaw country music band. As the band prepared to start its first song, the bearded faces and cowboy hats moving about on the dimly lit stage seemed out of place in cosmopolitan New York City. There is another America, however, where long-haul truck drivers, NASCAR, and football are the axis of daily life, and Whiskey Myers brought that reality to the Big Apple with soulful singing, searing guitars, and gritty rhythms. Whiskey Myers offered something fresh amidst the greasy southern rock riffs. The lyrics told stories of ordinary Americans and their struggles. “Trailer We Call Home,” which Cannon performed solo on acoustic guitar, relished the beauty in simple things, concluding that “times get tough but love is strong here in this trailer that we call home.” The twin guitar leads were most prominent when they roared, yet the musical range seemed wider when the band edged into sentimental power ballads. The set pivoted on songs from the most recent album, but also included as-yet unrecorded songs like “Bitch,” which featured Jeffers on lead vocals. Whiskey Myers took its audience on a journey to the southern life, and for a couple of hours it felt good to leave behind the big city existence.

The Flesh Eaters/The Bowery Ballroom/March 17, 2019

Chris Desjardins, known professionally as Chris D., was a feature writer at Slash magazine in 1977 when he formed the Flesh Eaters with several friends from the punk scene in Los Angeles. Desjardins was a poet who sang morbidly romantic lyrical themes while the band played experimental and improvisational punk rock, garage band, heavy metal, rockabilly, road-house blues, soul, and free jazz. Even after multiple member changes, the Flesh Eaters initially split in 1983, and Desjardins performed solo and with his new band, the Divine Horsemen, from 1984 to 1988. In 1989, Desjardins recorded an album with a project he called Stone by Stone. He then rebranded the band as the Flesh Eaters and continued to use the name with changing musicians until 1993, again from 1997 to 2000, and yet again in 2006, 2015, and 2018. Desjardins is the group’s only continuous member. The Flesh Eaters’ 11th and most recent studio album, I Used To Be Pretty, was released on January 18, 2019.

Through much of Chris D.’s musical history, the Flesh Eaters were perhaps more a concept than a band, as lineups changed frequently. The Flesh Eaters achieved its greatest accolades in 1981 with the album A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, at which time the musicians consisted of Desjardins, guitarist Dave Alvin (the Blasters), bassist John Doe (X), saxophonist Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), and percussionists DJ Bonebrake (X) and Bill Bateman (the Blasters). Desjardins reformed that lineup in 2006 and reunited the musicians again for the 2018 album and 2019 tour. At the Bowery Ballroom for the final date of the tour, the Flesh Eaters performed six tracks from that album, songs from other Flesh Eaters eras, and a few cover songs. Desjardins’ agonized wail unified all the songs, with the band’s musical thrust as aggressive an assault as Desjardins’ wordy lyrics and harrowing vocal delivery. Dark and deadly, raw and propulsive, the band anchored itself on grooves and ripped. Even the recurring soft moments of Bonebrake’s vibraphone and guest vocals by former Divine Horsemen Julie Christensen did not blunt the blow. Desjardins told the audience that the performance might be the last ever for the band. Hopefully, Desjardins will find other ways to disrupt the passive music market.