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MUSIC REVIEW : Black Rockers Still Battling for Acceptance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There isn’t a more forlorn sight in rock ‘n’ roll than a good band earnestly playing to an empty house. Unless it’s two good bands earnestly playing to an empty house.

Such a scene is especially discomfiting when the bands in question are promoting a worthy cause that begs the support of rock loyalists. That was the case Wednesday night when Blakasaurus Mex and Shock Council--two groups representing the Black Rock Coalition--played to the candles and the ashtrays at the Belly Up Tavern.

A little background. The Black Rock Coalition was formed Sept. 13, 1985, in New York’s SOHO district by bandleaders Vernon Reid (Living Colour) and Konda Mason (Isis) and Village Voice staffer Greg Tate.

Initially, they met to voice their frustrations with the resistance--from club owners, record companies, and both races--facing black musicians who wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll. They decided to organize like-minded musicians to create an alternative black music scene--one free of the stylistic constraints imposed on performers by the “black pop market.”

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Six years later, the nonprofit, networking BRC’s membership embraces artists from other disciplines as well as profes sionals from every conceivable field. The organization’s scope also has expanded to promote human rights and racial harmony in America and around the world. But the emphasis remains on the music. Some 50 bands have found work as a result of the BRC’s intervention, including ten who recently released a CD anthology, “The History of Our Future,” on the Rykodisc label. Two of those bands are L.A.'s Blakasaurus Mex and New York City’s Shock Council, whose current tour brought them to the Belly Up.

Unfortunately, the lack of bodies at this concert only underscored the double jeopardy that dogs the BRC’s efforts to propagate. Bluntly put, most black listeners want no part of rock ‘n’ roll, and most white fans of headbanger rock--with its biker-macho posturing, neo-Gothic graphics, and Aryan-think group identity--view it as a white medium. Eliminating those two factions doesn’t leave a deep demographic pool from which to draw an audience. Wednesday’s crowd peaked at about 25, and that included the bands’ coteries.

To their credit, the musicians performed gamely, keeping any bitterness at the poor showing well-concealed. Blakasaurus Mex’s lead vocalist, Ernie Perez, even thanked those present on numerous occasions for “coming out on a cold night when you have to get up early and punch a clock.” If Perez’s between-song patter often echoed the we’re-all-brothers-and-sisters mantra of late-'60s rock concerts, it was delivered with a conviction that characterized both bands’ performances.

Blakasaurus Mex--Perez, guitarist Dennis Jones, bassist Kenny Jones, and drummer Benny Murray--surveyed a number of hard-rock variants in their hour-long set, which also had some surprises. “Revolution” tied growling riff-rock to rap with good results. “Think Twice,” a song about homelessness and poverty, demonstrated the band’s adeptness with speed-metal. Other highlights included “Peace in Our Time,” a slow grinder worthy of early Black Sabbath, and the hard-rocking “The Ball and Chain.”

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Blakasaurus Mex’s set grew more intriguing in its later stages. Perez added colorful tenor sax accents on a discursive, jazz-fueled tune about life in L.A.'s inner city, called “It’s Time to Be Together.” And on one unnamed tune, the band came deliciously close to capturing the subtle, low-volume rock voicings and chord changes of the great early-'70s British band, Free.

All four members of Blakasaurus Mex are capable, but as most of the attention in hard-rock bands is paid to the guitarist, a few comments about Jones are warranted. It is so easy, and usually unfair, to invoke the late Jimi Hendrix every time a black guitarist straps on a Stratocaster. But it is nonetheless true that Hendrix opened the hard-rock door to black musicians, and remains the BRC’s patron saint.

Jones certainly has the Hendrix style book memorized--from the siren-like note bends to the molten octaves to the reverberant tone and transitional phrasings used on ballads. But Jones’s execution of lessons learned from the master was so passionate, in a non-showy way, as to render all such references moot. The guy is good, and that’s all that counts.

Shock Council is a power trio consisting of guitarist-vocalist Wayne Livingston, bassist Pete Cummings, and drummer Mike McNair. On this night at least, their material was more narrowly defined than that of Blakasaurus Mex, with an emphasis on hyperactive ensemble riffing over fast, rumbling rhythms. Livingston’s playing seemed influenced to some extent by Leslie West, and he recalled that leader of the ‘70s band, Mountain, in another way: The musicality meter dipped whenever he tried to sing.

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In watching Shock Council, one got the impression that the band’s songs were mere dressing for Livingston’s impressive playing. He was all over the fretboard, at times approaching the notes-per-minute output of an Allan Holdsworth. But if the guitarist’s playing was more melodically complex and intellectually engaging than Jones’, the relentless onslaught began to wear much sooner. By the fifth or sixth song, one desperately wished for a change of pace. For variety and emotional involvement, Blakasaurus Mex easily took the evening.

It would be wrong to use one bad night in San Diego as a determining factor in gauging the BRC’s health, but one left the show wondering about “the history of its future.” If Blakasaurus Mex and Shock Council offer little in the way of true innovation, they are nonetheless competent, frequently exciting bands whose crusading spirit places them far ahead of most white, play-by-numbers outfits.

They deserve bigger audiences than the one that showed up Wednesday, but at least BRC bands are getting gigs in good venues. And the Belly Up deserves credit for giving them a public forum.


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