James Chance and the Contortions With Trap PS, Collapsing Scenery At The Echoplex, Sunday March 19th 2017
I was not like one of these people lining up in front of the Echoplex around 9 pm on a Sunday night, I had no previous knowledge nor experience of James Chance and the Contortions, but I was willing to get curious and adventurous in music. Two guys behind me were precisely talking about this, getting adventurous, and I was wondering, in these times of chaos, wouldn’t we rather looking for stability and comfort instead of searching for another chaos?
The night was organized by Part Time Punks, the name of the award-winning radio show on KXLU 88.9FM and the name of the weekly Sunday show at The Echo, and people were excited at the idea to see James Chance and the Contortions, their first appearance in LA since 1982, however, I knew something that the other people didn’t know. James Chance and the Contortions had a date at SXSW last week, but Chance simply didn’t show up, and there were rumors that the notorious heroin addict passed on it because either he couldn’t cop or he wasn’t getting paid. or both. It infuriated Contortions lead guitarist Tomas Doncker, who produced and released Chance’s first great record in 40 years, 2016’s The Flesh Is Weak and so, despite financing the tour, refused to appear on the West Coast with the Contortions.
The night did certainly not go in a comfortable sonic direction, two bands, Trap PS and Collapsing Scenery, were opening, and they soon installed an eviscerating atmosphere, with a sound that would have you made hesitate between a scream or an applause, but of course, everyone was applauding.
I had already encountered Traps PS before, some real masters of a thorny chaos, building dissonance with short punk bullets, and screaming anger and danger over a hammered sound. With jumping bass lines and an atmosphere anxious as a predator jumping at your throat at each corner of their curious songs, they were as avant-garde and experimental as you can get on a Sunday night. I have no idea what Traps Ps means and it adds to the mystery of their angular compositions, but they were recycling bits of rock & roll shredded through some inventive and bizarre chord progressions. It was spiky at every detour, aggressive in a very untraditional way, and as it was my third time seeing them, I realized I had enjoyed their oddity a bit more each time, while their cacophonic anger was perfect to open the show.
Collapsing Scenery could have fooled me, they had plenty of theatrical mise en scene, they played in the dark, with blinding flashing light, while their frontman/singer Don Devore was making the most outrageous contortions and horror faces, and it was so stylish they could have been a famous band from the U.K. or somewhere else, unknown to me,… however, it turned out they were from the underground LA scene… no too underground as Devore had been in numerous bands (Ink & Dagger, The Icarus Line, Lilys, Amazing Baby…) and Reggie Debris (the other main founding member) is the alter ego for Maroon 5’s bassist Mickey Madden. Their set was a very harsh and insane experience, involving all senses, a blend of aggressive electronic-industrial hardcore dance, combining noises and visuals, dissonant synths and Devore’s tortured faces appearing in a flashing second… They got some calmer ones, and I even remember a few others inserting some rap lines between the overwhelming chaos, and overall they made a big impression with a violent and excess-celebrating game.
As I said it before, it was my first time seeing James Chance & the Contortions, Traps Ps had replaced Doncker, an act of reckless indifference, and Chance appeared on stage with his famous saxophone and the crowd cheering loudly. The rest of the experience was utterly strange, not because of the cacophonic angularity of the band’s funk-and-jazz-infused compositions, but probably because of James Chance himself.
‘We love you James Chance,’ screamed someone in the crowd after a few songs. ‘May I ask you why?’ Chance replied, with a dry tone while looking pissed off. Wearing an oversized jacket, and oversized pants, the bowtie was a mess, the hair was a mess, and if he had the moves and the steps, he walked the whole time bent over his mic or sax, with what it seems to be little control of his body, he moved like a Brian Wilson zombie trying to dance like James Brown.
With songs like ‘Contort Yourself’, ‘Jaded’ ‘Sax Maniac’, the music got schizophrenic with sax shrieks, cacophonic keys and numerous Brown-like roaring, and James Chance looking like a man who has walked up and down the Vegas strip several times after a night of gambling and drinking. He nevertheless continued to conduct the band with a wave of the hand, taking very few breaks, and if the music sounded busy and messy, it brought mutant funky grooves that made the crowd of kids behind me push and jump in a violent dancing.
And I got lost between the pushing of the crowd and the sonic doodling between funk and jazz, and something so chaotic, so disorienting that it departed far from anything close to the traditional roots of conventional music. James Chance was not a pretty vision, I know he is a legend of the underground and I am well aware he probably never wanted to be a pretty vision, but on Sunday night he looked like a puppet only held together by the strings of funk.