Living the Life 

The Oblivians get back together for a pair of sold-out local shows

It's 10:30 p.m. Saturday and the line is unusually long outside the Hi-Tone Café. Brent Shrewsbury, local musician/actor/filmmaker, walks his bike past the front parking lot along Poplar and then starts to chain it against the railing at the adjacent apartment building. A guy in line looks up, nods in Shrewsbury's direction, then says to his two friends: "Did you guys see $5 Cover?"

"Is that ...?" one friend replies.

"The funny one," the other answers.

"The drummer," the first guy says, making a little air-drum inflection and smiling.

If you didn't know any better, you would have thought Saturday night at the Hi-Tone was the kind of typical Memphis night Craig Brewer's series depicted: The crowds were big, the music was loud and energetic, the mood was festive. True, the people weren't quite as attractive as in $5 Cover, but otherwise it was a typical night in Memphis, right?

In reality, it was a special night in Memphis, as the city's reformed-for-the-moment garage/punk heroes the Oblivians played the second of back-to-back sold-out shows at the Hi-Tone alongside Detroit-based scene compatriots the Gories. These shows followed a "practice" show at the Buccaneer Thursday and lots of ancillary events organized around the shows, which drew out-of-town concertgoers to Memphis in much the same way the semi-annual Gonerfest concerts have, swelling the Hi-Tone even with the confines extended to an outdoor area behind the club.

Although the air conditioners and ceiling fans were on full blast, the day's heat advisory followed the crowds into the Hi-Tone Saturday. But given the rare opportunity to see two seminal bands together, no one seemed to mind.

The Gories — co-fronted by Mick Collins (later of the Dirtbombs) and Dan Kroha (ditto Demolition Doll Rods) — started just after 10:30 p.m. with a sharp but not volcanic set, layering distorted blues-rock riffs over Bo Diddley beats.

The Oblivians took the stage just after midnight, Eric Friedl wearing a T-shirt bearing the command "Kill a Punk for Rock & Roll" — a reference to the shirt a hirsute rocker displays in the cover photo on the band's Popular Favorites album. For the next 50 minutes, the band ripped through what was, by my count, an 18-song set of brutal, mostly early songs such as "Pill-Popper," "I'm Not a Sicko, There's a Plate in My Head," and "She's a Hole," first with the ever-gyrating Greg Cartwright flanking Friedl on guitar and Jack Yarber on drums, then with Cartwright and Yarber changing roles.

It should be noted that one reason this reunion feels more impressive than most is that it doesn't feel like musicians trying desperately to reclaim former glory. It was more like conquering heroes returning home: All three Oblivians (Cartwright with the Reigning Sound, Yarber with the Tearjerkers, and Friedl with Goner Records) have gone on to bigger and arguably better things since the Oblivians first disbanded more than a decade ago; they return to a scene they've helped make bigger.

The main set was good, but it was musical catnip for hardcore fans. When New Orleans organ player Mr. Quintron joined in for a four-song, 15-minute encore, the band showed why it was — and is — even bigger than the subculture that adores it. You could argue — and I would — that the band's 1997 Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron is the most essential post-1977 Memphis album, and the band showed why Saturday, starting with the punk-gospel "Feel Alright" before turning the Hi-Tone into a hand-swaying tent revival with their definitive take on the traditional "Live the Life."

Afterward, the crowd waited restlessly for a second encore that never came but left satisfied anyway. You want to see the Oblivians again? They'll play a show in Detroit at the end of June then head to Europe — with the Gories on both accounts — for a two-week tour.

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