Bow to Battlehooch, baby — while you still can



San Fran band in NYC for a limited time only

For the past few week’s, their impromptu open-air Astor Place concerts have been drawing highly receptive crowds — so why pay for the cow when Battlehooch is doling out delicious, danceable, soul-strengthening free milk?

Turns out there are many good reasons — the least of which is the fact that this San Francisco-based six-member bunch of goodtime throwback nutballs is in NYC only through Oct. 26. After that, they’ll pile into what one assumes is a well-worn Scooby-Doo type van and crisscross our lucky nation until they end up back in their beloved hill-strewn, hippie-friendly hometown.

Seeing them in concert — as opposed to finding them by chance on the street — is another good reason to pay for the cow. That was much in evidence this Monday, when Battlehooch delivered a dying-star-dense 30-minute set in an indoor space where four walls and a ceiling did very a nice job of containing their sound for closer inspection.

That brief Columbus Day performance was the first in their three-week Monday night series at Pianos (158 Ludlow St., 9 p.m., $8 cover). That residency, along with an Oct. 19 appearance at The Knitting Factory (361 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn), will be your only chance to experience them in the great indoors before they hightail it out of town.

When the long moral arc of the universe finally bends towards justice, Battlehooch will be a household word. Maybe even a verb.

So get your ass in gear and see them in concert now before their ticket price becomes prohibitively expensive. On that day, maybe the boys will splurge and broaden their fashion horizons past the band’s current thrift store aesthetic — but probably not. They seem pretty happy working those headbands, faded long sleeve baseball shirts, and white Ts under suit vests — a look which, like the music itself, declares that Battlehooch (formed in 2007) is quite content time warping it back to the 1970s, and skipping entirely the 80s Members Only shiny jacket synthpop crap influence that’s embedded itself into so many other youthful music acts currently on the scene.

That’s our pissy critique, by the way — not theirs. Unlike those who write about music, Battlehooch doesn’t get its jollies from flippant observations. The attitude they convey is one of slightly buzzed bliss — all the friendliness and optimism of Casper, with none of his cloying, transparent innocence.

Even though they come across as fundamentally decent gents, a palpable fog of delinquency hovers over the proceedings like a foreboding San Francisco mist. That’s OK with us — because all great rock acts should come to the stage armed with a sense of danger. Battlehooch’s danger, though, is more “please post bail for us” rather than “we’re gonna trash this joint.” Such nice boys. So nice, in fact, that their street corner Astor Place concerts are often interrupted by various band members reminding the audience to move away from the sidewalk so they don’t get mauled by a passing bus. That’s not quite in the league of helping old ladies across the street, but it shows concern — and that thought counts.

But beyond the admiral humanity and the “Party Band” vibe, there’s also an undercurrent of melancholy that has audiences swooning with empathy (while they’re not busy dancing themselves into a sweaty mess). That’s not an easy line to walk, in either the stage show antics or the music itself — but it’s nonetheless conveyed, and in a manner that doesn’t seem calculated for pure effect.

Like most music that commands your attention past the second or third listen, Battlehooch’s appeal comes from the sheer amount of artistic influences and cultural references offered up within the course of a single set or CD.

Vocalist Pat Smith, who writes many of the songs, cops to oft-made Captain Beefheart comparison. But, he asserts, “I feel like that only encapsulates part of what we do. We really like Roxy Music — which had sort of the same instrumentation as us.”

That UK Bryan Ferry-helmed group (with able assist from Brian Eno) was first heard in 1971. They had all the usual instrumental suspects of a rock group, but still found room for the occasional oboe and violin. Battlehooch has the same approach. At any given moment, you’re likely to hear guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, accordion, saxophone, clarinet, flute, tambourine and — yes — (more) cowbell. What might seem like a fractured equation on paper translates very effectively to the stage, giving them the ability to transform from hard rock to almost easy listening to psychedelic — often within the context of a single number. Easier said than done, but done very well.

Declaring that their musical likes and influences go back considerably further than the 1971 Roxy Music flashpoint, Smith says that the song Red Tide “comes from our keyboard player. He’s steeped in traditional Jewish music. He’s the oldest member of our band.” Spoiler alert — that “oldest member” is 27. As a result of his near-“Logan’s Run” end of the road age, he’s often referred to as the “old man” of the band. But take heart, over-30 geezers — Battlehooch is just messin’ with your head. Anyone who declares their love for Roxy Music can’t really think too poorly of those who were walking the Earth during that band’s heyday.

Anyone, Smith points out, is welcome to join the fun (during prolonged instrumental jamming, it’s not at all unusual for Smith to spend his downtime dancing with the audience). Likewise, band members often encourage the audience to move closer — qualified with a disclaimer that the request is void should there happen to be an invisible alligator-packed moat between band and crowd that has escaped their notice. Such monkeyshines and shenanigans, Smith says, are not indicators that the tight, obviously rehearsed music isn’t at the forefront of their concerns. “Life should be a celebration,” he says, “so I’m not offended by that. But we do take the music seriously.”

If you can’t see them live here in NYC, visit the website—www.battlehooch.com — and access an ever-growing collection of videos featuring what they call “Desolation Shows.” Smith explains: “As we’ve been traveling, we’ve been filming in the middle of nowhere — a desert, a swamp. We do these music videos in very stark landscapes.”

Already up on the site is a Desolation Show video for “Caliphate” — and this week, they should be receiving copies of their latest CD, which will be on sale at those two remaining Oct. 18 and 25 gigs at Pianos (plus the Oct. 19 Brooklyn Knitting Factory performance). Be there, kids & old folks — or be very, very square.