Aftermath: Butthole Surfers at Meridian

Categories: Live Shots

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Photos by Craig Hlavaty

Aftermath doesn’t shock easily. But last night, I was absolutely floored when I walked out of Meridian as the Butthole Surfers were mopping up their nearly 90-minute set and realized I was stone. Cold. Sober. Of all the shows to climb on the wagon…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the Surfers’ belligerent psychedelic music – and I did - without the benefit of excessive alcohol, marijuana or hallucinogens. But still, it was missing that certain something, the hidden layers inside the band’s psychotic performance art that only reveals itself after liberal indulgence in mind-altering chemicals.

Judging by the jam-packed crowd – many of whom, including one beardo in a choice orange Pain Teens T-shirt, appeared to have not ventured out since the Surfers former stomping grounds the Axiom shut down – this put Aftermath in the definite minority, especially since I know for a fact at least one person was running around gleefully handing out gratis tabs of acid.

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And I can’t speak for the band, but frontman Gibby Haynes was either on something unknown to even Central American shamen or, well, just being Gibby Haynes. It took an hour before I understood a single lyric that came out of his mouth.

“Do they always play shitfaced?” a photographer acquaintance asked me during a smoke break.

“Ummm… pretty much?”

If nothing else, a clear head made it that much easier to appreciate the ferocious guitar talents of Paul Leary, who certainly seemed as sober as I was and proved to be quite the card. “I’m having trouble reading my setlist up here,” he said shortly after the Surfers walked onstage. So was I, given Haynes’ indecipherable lyrics and the fact that half their material sounded more like sketchwork than actual songwriting. (The other half more than made up for it.)

Speaking of art, Leary treated his instrument like an abstract expressionist painter might treat a canvas, following his fretboard hither and yon through concrete-thick bursts of squalling feedback and surprisingly heartstring-tugging psychedelic melodies. He opened with a ponderous riff sludgier than almost anything Black Sabbath put to wax, and quoted Jimi Hendrix’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” not long after.

Rembrandt Pussyhorse’s “Creep in the Cellar,” believe it or don’t, sounded almost Bostonian, and Led Zeppelin cues were all over the place. The Surfers may not be anyone’s idea of classic rock, but a case could be made.

Up to a point, anyway. No one would mistake the demented blues of “Moving to Florida” for Eric Clapton – more like Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.” (The beautiful people, the beautiful people… were not here.) And there was enough full-bore blast-furnace punk rock that bassist Jeff Pinkus and twin drummers King Coffey and Teresa Taylor can probably go ahead and skip that workout today.

Haynes, meanwhile, groused about the lighting, fiddled with his Gibbytronix sampling/vocal distortion contraption, sang through a megaphone and played some of the most discordant, atonal saxophone I’ve ever heard. (Eat your heart out, John Zorn.) Uptempo Led Zep behemoth “BBQ Pope” was particularly piercing.

Equal parts chaotic and melodic, the Surfers’ set made a fitting epitaph for the band's tumultuous career, never more than on pulverizing Independent Worm Saloon standouts “Goofy’s Concern,” “Dust Devil” and “Some Dispute Over T-Shirt Sales.” Since the Surfers are unlikely to return to either full-time active status or to Houston anytime soon, Aftermath is glad I remember the show so clearly. But I still can’t help wondering how it might have been if I’d eaten a mushroom or two beforehand. – Chris Gray


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