By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Delivering it’s mix of boozy gothic country and fervent gospel punk for the last quarter century, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club brings its current tour with garage-punk icon Kid Congo Powers and his band the Pink Monkey Birds to the Bay Area for shows in Albany and San Francisco.
Founded by lead singer and principle songwriter Slim Cessna in 1992 after his association with pioneering Colorado-based Americana group the Denver Gentlemen (members David Eugene Edwards and Jeffrey-Paul Norlander would start like-minded outfit 16 Horsepower), Slim Cessna’s Auto Club introduced religious themes and the intense frontman’s fire-and-brimstone Baptist delivery to the regional style of modern alt-country. Alongside his longtime vocal and songwriting foil Jay Munly and guitarist Dwight Pentacost, Slim and company would build a rabid local following.
The group self-released several recordings between the mid-1990s and the turn of the century, eventually coming to the attention of San Francisco punk icon Jello Biafra, who described the group as “the country band that plays the bar at the end of the world.” In 2000, Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label would issue the band’s third album, Always Say Please and Thank You, its first to receive global distribution.
The album featured Slim’s plaintive country balladry (“Cheyenne,” “In My Arms Once Again”) balanced against raucous odes like “Last Song About Satan,” “Pine Box” and the transcendent epic “Hold My Head” that approximated what Celtic punk band the Pogues might have sounded like if they’d hailed from the Appalachian Mountains instead of London. The release was met with widespread critical acclaim and the band’s kinetic live performances earned them equally ecstatic notices on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
SCAC would remain with Alternative Tentacles through the decade, putting out a reissue of their studio debut as well as four more celebrated albums. The band eventually started putting out it’s own music again in 2012, releasing a series of archival EPs that collected demo and live recordings to mark the 20th anniversary of the collective. While the members of the group are also involved with a slew of other projects (most notably Munly’s various solo and band recordings with the Lee Lewis Harlots and his own outfit, the Lupercalians), SCAC still regularly reconvenes to tour and record.
In 2016, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club released the band’s sixth studio album — The Commandments According To SCAC — on its own SCACUNINCORPORATED imprint. The first recording to feature the new rhythm section of bassist Ian O’Dougherty and drummer Andrew Warner (keyboard/lap steel player Rebecca Vera rounds out the current line-up), it continues Cessna and Munly’s exploration of gothic country shot through with religious overtones. The new songs offer a more spare and minimalist take on the band’s sound while still leaning heavily on haunting vocal harmonies, keyboards and lap steel played by and Pentacost’s reverb-drenched guitar.
While Cessna and Munly have more recently released music and toured as DBUK, an atmospheric, stripped-down collaboration that also features Pentacost and Vera, the Auto Club takes to the road once again for the band’s current tour with fellow travelers Kid Congo Powers and his current band, the Pink Monkey Birds. An early follower of the fledgling punk-rock scene in the mid-1970s, Powers was the president of the Ramones fan club and fan a fanzine for early LA electro-punk outfit the Screamers before embarking on his own career in music.
Returning to Los Angeles in 1979 after travels in New York City and London, Powers met songwriter Jeffrey Lee Pierce and co-founded Creeping Ritual, the band that would eventually evolve into the swampy, blues-inspired punk band the Gun Club. While Powers departed from the group prior to the recording of their 1981 debut Fire of Love, he would employ the opening tuning guitar style he learned from Pierce when he became a member of primal psychobilly punk outfit the Cramps in late 1980.
Powers would contribute to two seminal early albums by the group — Psychedelic Jungle in 1981 and the incendiary live effort Smell of Female — but eventually reunited with Pierce in the Gun Club to record The Las Vegas Story and Mother Juno. In 1988, Powers moved on to the next chapter in his career, joining Australian songwriter Nick Cave in Berlin as a member of the Bad Seeds.
Beginning with his contributions to the landmark Tender Prey album, Powers would play a key role in Cave’s backing band as the singer/songwriter rose from his earlier status as a punk cult figure to become an international star. The guitarist would go on to collaborate with other notables like Swans mainstay Michael Gira in his acoustic group Angels of Light, but in 1997, he also began fronting his own outfit, the Pink Monkey Birds.
While it would take time for Powers to finally release his debut recordings as a bandleader with 2006’s Philosophy and Underwear (a collection that veered wildly from sleazy garage punk to soulful balladry to primitive electronic), he has issued a series gritty, unhinged albums for In the Red Records including career highlights like Dracula Boots in 2009, Gorilla Rose in 2011 and his most recent effort, La Araña Es La Vida from three years ago.
Backed by the current line-up of the Pink Monkey Birds that features bassist Kiki Solis, drummer Ron Miller and guitarist Mark Cisneros, Powers and company will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Dracula Boots by playing the celebrated album in its entirety on this tour and selling commemorative blood-red vinyl copies of the record. For these three co-headlining shows in Northern California, the two acts will be joined by Oakland trash-punk favorites Midnite Snaxx at the Ivy Room in Albany on Thursday and local group Maya and the Revolutionary Hell Yeah (who are celebrating their new album release) at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco Friday night. On Saturday, garage-punk heroes the Trouble Makers along with DJ Annimal will warm up the crowd at Harlow’s in Sacramento.
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds
Thursday, June 13, 8 p.m. $20
The Ivy Room
Friday, June 14, 8 p.m. $20
The Bottom of the Hill
Saturday, June 15, 8 p.m. $18-$20