Gonerfest," says Memphis transplant John Hoppe, "is like [New Orleans roots-music festival] Ponderosa Stomp in reverse: Instead of waiting 25 years for someone to tell you this band is great, you can actually see 'em while they're good."
Hoppe knows of what he speaks: He traveled here to attend the three previous Gonerfest garage-rock extravaganzas and had such a good time last year that he moved from Michigan, permanently, and got a job at Goner Records, the Cooper-Young label/storefront behind the event.
Hoppe, Goner founder Eric Friedl, and co-owner Zac Ives have spent the last nine months preparing for Gonerfest 4, a five-day affair that kicked off with a five-act label showcase on September 26th and — spanning seven venues and including an art show, record-spinning DJs, and a special screening of the movie The Man Who Loved Couch Dancing — continues until the wee hours of Monday morning.
"A lot of it books itself," says Friedl, who describes the festival as an "organic" event that, this year, draws more than 100 musicians from three continents.
"We're getting better at planning ahead," he says. "It kind of extends from one year to the next. Who couldn't come, who did we forget to ask, and what were we missing from the last one?"
This year, the Goner crew has pulled out some big guns, including 1990s garage-rock legends Donny Denim, Tina Lucchesi, and Head; Australian rockers the Ooga Boogas and Eddy Current Suppression Ring; the return of U.K. garage group the Hipshakes; and regional favorites Lover!, Evil Army, Mr. Quintron & Miss Pussycat, and the Perfect Fits.
"The fact that it's in Memphis is something else we've got going for us," says Ives, who points out that performers and audience members alike are flocking to the Bluff City to eat, shop, and party all week long.
It helps, of course, that past Gonerfests have been immortalized on both the Goner Records message board and via the Electric Goneroo: Gonerfest 2 DVD/CD, which was co-produced by Live From Memphis and Rocket Science Audio and is currently out-of-print.
For out-of-towners, the ancillary draws are many: the wealth of music history found here; the only-in-Memphis high jinks that range from Young Avenue hot dog cookouts (Gonerfest 1) to an outdoor kiddie pool filled with live eels (Gonerfest 3); the stamina of local scenesters, who already have planned three nights of after-party shows that kick off at 2 a.m.; the lure of five new Goner releases, including a Ross Johnson retrospective CD, stellar new albums from Chicago rockers Cococoma and Atlanta group the Carbonas; and a book by Milwaukee artist/Tuff Bananas bassist Mark Ertmer. All of this, in addition to the regular daily and nightly shows, make the marathon event a must, despite the popularity of other garage-rock festivals such as Chicago's Blackout, Oakland's Budget Rock Showcase, and the Las Vegas Grind.
As Alex Cuervo, frontman for the Austin-based group the Hex Dispensers, insists, "My wife and I were talking about coming, no matter what. It's even more fun to play it, but I'm glad we're performing on Thursday night, so we can relax. We want to eat at Gus's Fried Chicken and the Cozy Corner as often as we can. The Memphis scene seems like it's thriving. There's a lot of really exciting stuff happening there."
Here's a critical guide to some of Gonerfest 4's potential highlights:
Greg Cartwright — Goner Records, 5:30 p.m.
Why you should care: In between playing on the Detroit Cobras' latest album and producing Mary Weiss' much-heralded comeback and appearing, with Weiss, on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, the former Memphian hasn't returned home for a gig since his band the Reigning Sound's triumphant show last New Year's Eve. Sans his backing band, Cartwright headlines the official opening ceremonies for Gonerfest 4. And if the live album he and the Reigning Sound cut at Goner in June 2005 is any indication, he'll be performing at full-throttle — in pure Cartwright style, with his neck tucked in and his strumming arm flailing — for the hometown crowd.
Hex Dispensers — Hi-Tone Café,
What to expect: Horror-themed Ramones-meets-Misfits pop punk. "As basic and as good a description as that is, it's pretty flattering. It sounds kind of generic, because they're both such obvious and prominent punk-rock bands — but at the same time, that's what we've tried to do," says vocalist/guitarist Alex Cuervo, veteran of classic garage-rock groups Blacktop and the Now Time Delegation, who formed the Hex Dispensers with guitarist Tom Kodiak, drummer Alyse Mervosh, and bassist Dave Bessenhoffer last year.
Top Ten — Hi-Tone Café, 11:15 p.m.
What to expect: "We're action-packed comedy and good times — a drunken extravaganza," says Top Ten frontwoman Tina Lucchesi, who has planned a six-city tour around the group's Gonerfest 4 appearance. A veteran of iconic Bay Area garage-rock group the Trashwomen, the raven-haired Lucchesi sings gritty covers of classics such as Teenage Head's "Got No Sense" alongside helter-skelter, Runaways-minded originals such as "Easily Unkind" with the assistance of hard-rocking guitarist Erin McDermott, bassist Richie Butler, and new drummer Lumpy McGumps.
Jay Reatard — Hi-Tone Café, 1 a.m.
Why you should care: For the majority of Memphis' million-plus population, Jay Reatard's as anonymous as you or me. On the indie-rock circuit, however, his rock-and-roll antics and oft-disputed musical brilliance are making him a household name. At last year's SXSW Music Festival, Reatard (real name: Jay Lindsey) dazzled the honchos at Vice Records; now, fresh off a European tour with the Boston Chinks, he's being hounded by über-producer Rick Rubin and A&R men from media conglomerate Universal and alternative stalwart Matador Records. "It's all weird 'til I get paid," Reatard says with a shrug, declining to name which label's the lucky bidder. Catch him while you can: Post-Gonerfest, Reatard and the Boston Chinks embark on a two-month coast-to-coast U.S. tour, which includes a high-profile stop at the CMJ Festival in New York City.
Head — Hi-Tone Café, 10:30 p.m.
Why you should care: Since forming in 1990, Seattle punk trio Head has languished in garage-rock obscurity. When Eric Friedl requested a dream reunion for Goner Records' 2006 SXSW showcase, band members Ree Ree, Touch, and Tulu insisted, "We never broke up." Indeed, Head has plugged along for nearly two decades, independently releasing albums on the band's own imprint, Evil Clown Records, including Heil Head, a 31-track discography, and a new album called No Hugging No Learning, which includes the hook-laden, pop-punk pedophilic anthem "I'm 35 Years Older Than You."
Eddy Current Suppression Ring —
Hi-Tone Café, 11:15 p.m.
What to expect: With the Ooga Boogas (which features members from the Onyas and the Sailors) and Digger & the Pussycats, the land down under is well-represented at Gonerfest 4, but word on the street is that Eddy Current Suppression Ring is the band to watch. Named for the electromagnetic ripples on a conductive metal plate, the group takes on the deconstructionist roots-rock style popularized by fringe groups such as the Country Teasers, then channels it through a hurricane-force, four-to-the-floor technique that's equal parts '60s Yardbirds punk and '70s New York minimalism.
Mr. Airplane Man — Hi-Tone Café, midnight
Why you should care: "It's been awhile, and I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime deal to see 'em again," says Greg Cartwright, who helped this Boston-based blues-rock duo cut two albums, 2002's Moanin' and its '04 follow-up, C'mon DJ. He has a point: Despite rising success in the middle of the decade, the band went on hiatus after guitarist Margaret Garrett's temporary exodus to Memphis (and subsequent return to New England) and drummer Tara McManus focused her energies on the Turpentine Brothers. A rumored reunion gig in Los Angeles this fall never happened, but Garrett and McManus performed live in Somerville, Massachusetts, last week and are finally slated to bring their unadorned, North Mississippi hill-country-blues meets Morphine rock sounds back down South.
Goodnight Loving — Murphy's, 5 p.m.
What to expect: While this Milwaukee group has already rolled through Memphis once this year, their appearance at Gonerfest 4 should still be a highlight: The band's new album, Crooked Lake, which was recorded in a fishing cabin and released just days ago, sounds like a well-mixed combination of Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks and Irish roustabouts the Pogues, with catchy lyrics and driving rhythms galore. Don't miss the live rendition of their song "Land of 1,000 Bars," a folksy ode to binge drinking that's guaranteed to stick in your head long after the buzz wears off.
Donny Denim & The Meatballs —
Hi-Tone Café, midnight
What to expect: "I'm coming to Gonerfest because I said no the first three years Eric asked me." So says South City, California, homeboy Darin Raffaelli, whose first band, Supercharger, inspired Friedl's iconic Memphis group the Oblivians. "The switchboard is lighting up," Raffaelli adds, when queried about his backing band, the Meatballs. "Russell [Quan, drummer for another early Oblivians influence, the Mummies] is coming, and Brian Hermosillo and Kathy Walker from the Retardos, along with Chris Santamaria from Loli and the Chones." For their sojourn to Memphis, the Meatballs — a party band that initially cut just two songs, "Hey You" and "Necro Sue" — have been working on a set of inspired covers that are sure to pack the dance floor, although Raffaelli, aka Denim, claims, "I'm actually intimidated by this Hi-Tone place. I think we'd be much more comfortable in a record store or someone's living room."
Why you should care: Ask Raffaelli about his musical background, and he'll solemnly declare, "I'm a hobbyist." But as his friend Tina Lucchesi correctly insists, "Darin's important for late-'80s to early-'90s garage rock. His band Supercharger came around at a time when there was a musical lull, and, along with the Mummies, they started an explosive run of punk rock and simple rock-and-roll. Because of those two bands, all these other bands started." Other notches on Raffaelli's belt: He was the Kim Fowley-like Svengali behind the Donnas' formation and wrote all the material for their first album, he's the mogul behind West Coast indie label Super*teem Records, and he's the voice behind "Boy Like You," which was featured in a popular 2002 Target TV spot. Ever modest, Raffaelli counters, "I'm out of touch. I never felt in touch, to be honest. I wasn't and have never felt part of any scene."