The Flesh Eaters - Live in Grand Rapids (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

The Flesh Eaters

Live in Grand Rapids (2019)

live show

There were a lot of big punk names in a small room at the Pyramid Scheme in downtown Grand Rapids on Monday, March 11th. Most of them were in the improbably reunited classic 1981 lineup of The Flesh Eaters. That lineup includes bassist/vocalist John Doe and drummer DJ Bonebrake from X, guitarist Dave Alvin and drummer Bill Bateman from The Blasters, saxophonist Steve Berlin from Los Lobos, and of course, frontman, founder and sole constant member Chris Desjardins. There were others too, and we’ll get to them all eventually.

We started the evening with a great meal and several beers at a restaurant across the street. I had no idea what to expect from the bands, so this guaranteed that the night wouldn’t be a total waste. (I even saw John Doe walk by while we ate.) This is the type of show we don’t get in Grand Rapids very often, and I was glad to see that it drew a pretty decent crowd. There was also a wide age range, which seems to be increasingly rare.

Before The Flesh Eaters, we were treated to a set from Porcupine, the current band featuring former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton. (I’ve managed to catch two of the three members of that band at different times, but sadly will never get the chance with Grant Hart.) Norton is the bassist of Porcupine, but it’s not really his band, per say. That being said, he brings an undeniable skill and energy to the trio. He will have turned 60 by the time you read this, and he still looks and sounds great. (Yes, he still has that magnificent mustache. The color has faded with the years, and it actually looks much more natural now.)

Porcupine plays music on the mopey end of the grunge spectrum. (Think maybe Sunny Day Real Estate meets Failure meets early Weezer.) They heavily utilize the loud, quiet, loud dynamic perfected by bands like Nirvana in the early ‘90s. The guitarist/vocalist played a Fender Jaguar and had two mics, one with a built in effect. The bass parts were complex and forward in the mix. I wonder if that was true before Norton joined the band. I enjoyed their set, and was glad to get to see Norton ply his trade.

The early Los Angeles punk scene was really two distinct scenes, even if there was a fair amount of overlap. (New York was the same way, Ramones and Television were radically different, but were still lumped into the same scene.) There were the art school dropout punk bands like X, The Weirdos and The Plugz, and the hardcore of bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks and TSOL. The Flesh Eaters definitely formed from the artsy fartsy crowd. Chris D is often referred to as a punk poet, but don’t let that scare you.

The Flesh Eaters’ 90 minute set veered between pulsing punk and a something resembling free jazz. (Beatnik punk?) The saxophone is such a dominant instrument that it drives the action. Berlin got a fair amount of solos, although Bateman got plenty too. The six piece band was at their best when all the instruments locked in on the same single riff. It might have been reminiscent of Funhouse era Stooges, if instead of a shirtless, emaciated Iggy Pop, the band was led by your 8th grade math teacher. They opened with the classic “See You in the Boneyard” from A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (1981).

Chris D has only a small ring of gray hair around the back of his head, but still has dark expressive eyebrows. He wears a suit jacket and delivers his words in a gravely shuffle. He uses hand signals to direct the band like an orchestra conductor. Doe still looks the part of the rock star, and also looked like he was having a good time. He pounded out huge bass riffs, helped out with vocals, and easily bantered with the crowd. Alvin resembled a dapper cowboy. He stood there stoically while his fingers tore around the fretboard. Bonebrake mostly played xylophone, (take that Crazy and the Brains), and I must say, he looked the spryest of the old codgers on stage.

There were a few minor lows, where the music sounded like something that should have been playing in the background on the weather channel. Fortunately, there were far more highs. “My Life to Live” and “Divine Horseman” were probably my favorites. Overall, it was an enjoyable show. Despite its length, Chris D and company managed to keep the crowd engaged. The grooves were so thick that a white boy with no soul like me could almost dance to it. I tend to be drawn toward the more hardcore style of punk, but I certainly gained a new appreciation for what The Flesh Eaters do.

Celebrity punk roundup: I couldn’t help but notice Michigan’s own punk (potty) poet Tesco Vee hanging out with his wife at the back of the club. I resisted the urge to bother him. (I guess I hadn’t had enough to drink.) I was hoping he would join the band for “Twisted Road”, a Flesh Eaters’ song that the Meatmen covered back in 1987. (It appeared as a bonus track on the Meat King reissue of Rock ‘N’ Roll Juggernaught.) Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, unless he snuck backstage, he left before the encore.

Confessions of a merch whore: I was hoping that The Flesh Eaters would have the recent Superior Viaduct reissues of their back catalog, but that wasn’t the case. (Music is the number one thing I prefer to buy at shows, but only rarely do bands seem to have a deep selection.) I would have loved to grab their first couple of albums on vinyl. I did buy a discounted water damaged copy of the John Doe memoir, Under the Big Black Sun. Unfortunately, it was getting a bit late for a Monday night, so I didn’t hang out to have him sign it.