I recently had the opportunity to see one of my favorite rock bands in the world — one that, amazingly, has existed for roughly a half-century. That band is San Francisco’s own Flamin’ Groovies — whose rootsy, bluesy, jubilant, tuneful confluence of old-time rock ‘n’ roll, British Invasion pop-rock, and L.A. folk-rock was, when they started out, at odds with the psychedelic, mind-expanding jams of certain peers in the Bay Area’s music scene. And though many of their comrades and rivals from back in the day have fallen by the wayside, the Groovies persisted — still recording, still performing. More specifically, longtime singers-guitarists-songwriters Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson reconnected to carry on as the Groovies after a break of more than three decades and some personnel shifts on bass and drums.
Catching the refurbished ensemble over the past few years at shows in San Francisco (the Elbo Room) and Los Angeles (the Roxy and the Bootleg Theater) was bracing. Even if P.A. problems sometimes hampered the sound at the Roxy and the musicians’ lengthy hiatus resulted in occasional tentativeness at the Bootleg, the Elbo Room show I attended — right after Cyril and Chris opted to give the group another go — kicked ass. Ultimately, the reunion, featuring original Groovies bassist George Alexander and latter-day drummer Victor Penalosa, has spawned something truly special for fans of the band and their power-pop sound.
This month, the Groovies are releasing a damned fine new album, Fantastic Plastic, featuring material that can stand with some of their best work. In fact, the lead track, “What the Hell’s Goin’ On,” sounds like one of their career high-points. It’s a searing, multi-layered, guitar-driven yelp of fury and frustration that swaggers forward in a dynamic, blues-rock arrangement echoing the Rolling Stones at their early ’70s peak with a touch of 12-string shimmer. Although Alexander and Penalosa are on most of the sessions here, the presence of the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ rhythm section on “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” should be noted. They are exceptional.
The sentiment expressed in “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” is pure 21st Century angst in a turbulent world, yet its catchy melody and punchy beat are in line with past Groovies classics such as “Slow Death,” “Shake Some Action,” “Between the Lines,” and “Jumpin’ in the Night.” And the rest of the collection follows suit, including the bone-rattling Who-styled thrust of “Let Me Rock” and the mesmerizing 12-string jangle and harmony of “End of the World.”
Unlike so many people, I don’t exclusively listen to music from any particular era. I’m as likely to be enjoying what just came out of the box from the New Pornographers as I am to be digging the crucial 1959 Miles Davis album Kind of Blue; an airy, ’70s-era Joni Mitchell confessional; or a Small Faces single from 1968. Great music, like any transcendent art, is and should be timeless. Thus it is with the Groovies.
Before I proceed… a disclaimer: Along with my colleague in journalism Michael Goldberg, I compiled a pretty exhaustive and frankly rousing anthology of Flamin’ Groovies tracks entitled Groovies Greatest Grooves for Sire Records back in 1989. Co-wrote the liner notes with Goldberg, as well. So I’ve always had a rooting interest in these guys, even if Jordan and Wilson went their separate ways and might have never done a joint follow-up to that retrospective.
Recently, Alexander and Penalosa departed the line-up. Cyril and Chris were undaunted, and scored a double coup by tapping Bay Area music scene mainstay Chris Von Sneidern a.k.a. CVS for bass and backup vocals and Tony Sales Jr. (son of Bowie/Iggy Pop/Todd Rundgren bassist Tony Sales, and grandson of beloved TV funnyman Soupy Sales) to handle drums. These guys bring a melodious vitality that has further energized the Groovies, right as Fantastic Plastic is released.
I caught the new line-up at The Chapel, a nightclub that’s only been around since 2012 but quickly became my preferred place to enjoy live music in the city. It’s a bastion of great sound, comfortable décor, and easy charm in a Mission District crawling with crass technoids. In fact, other than the spiffy condition of the place, the Chapel seems like it’s been there on Valencia Street for decades.
Anyhow, the set kicked off with a rendition of “Let Me Rock” that was positively stunning and more assured and dynamic than anything I’d heard the Groovies play live in ages. Cyril was stinging and slashing on guitar; Chris was wailing on lead vocals. And the rhythm section? CVS and Sales were steady yet vibrant. The lyrical quality of Von Sneidern’s bass-lines and the solid thunder of Sales’ drumming gave the band a foundation that was a match for its ’70s incarnation — perhaps more precise and textured.
Over the course of the all-too-brief show (under ten songs played), they did sterling interpretations of their best-known numbers — “Slow Death,” “Shake Some Action,” and “Teenage Head,” for example — and did an outstanding cover of NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad,” which can also be heard in a rockin’ studio version on Fantastic Plastic. I feel certain that their current European and American tour will afford them the chance to expand their playlist as CVS and Sales get more comfortable. I can only surmise how potent it will be to hear “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” live and in person. I don’t know when they’ll play San Francisco again, but they have to bring this latest iteration and that fresh material to their adherents in Los Angeles soon. And when they do, I’ll be there. Still Grooving after all these years.