The best part of many a movie is the montage assembling of The Team, whether it’s robbers united for one last heist or the Blues Brothers getting the old band back together. For the second-annual Rock Lotto benefit at Berkeley’s Starry Plough, The Team included a virtual cross-section of the local avant-garde/improv/rock scene: members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Spezza Rotto, Pluto, Idiot Flesh, Secret Chiefs, Nanos Operetta, Three Piece Combo, the Molecules, and, as they say, many more.
But in this case, bucking the fine tradition of handcrafting crack squadrons by carefully weighing strengths and personalities, the Rock Lotto teams were thrown together entirely at random.
Taking up a concept the late Vaccination Records used at the Plough some years back, diabolical percussionist and Moe!kestra mastermind Moe! Staiano had players literally draw lots to form new bands, giving these slapped-together combos only one or two rehearsals to construct an original set list. All proceeds from the big show — held on a Friday night in early April — went to help pay the medical bills of Amoeba buyer and Subtle keyboardist Dax Pierson, who broke his neck when the band’s tour van crashed in February.
Seven randomized bands should’ve played, but as Staiano explained, “One couldn’t make it and one broke up.”
Still, it was easy enough to fill up on the five courses that remained. First came Squalor, which turned out to be pretty much what you’d expect from a bunch of avant-garde veterans, insofar as you never knew what to expect as any given piece jerked wildly from point A to the breaking point. The makeshift quintet tore through alternately hectic and hypnotic instrumentals driven by galumphing elephant rhythms — Kevin Loomis’ drums clattered like an army of zombies pounding at your door, while Mike Perlmutter’s chirping and caterwauling sax encountered a veritable earthquake of churning bass and spacey sound effects. As my date put it, “These guys never met an atonal chord they didn’t like.”
Much more surprising was the frenzied new wave pep of the Meat Carpenters, a prefab four featuring Staiano on drums and Jesse Quattro offering a vocal presence to be reckoned with. From the irresistibly catchy bada-badada chorus that opened and closed the set to the pantsless tuxedos that served as the official Carpenters uniform, they had their act down in a way that made creating an enchanting pop-drenched band look ridiculously easy. Quattro’s bluesy plaint You killed my angel was punctuated by stomping-giant full-band thumps one moment, and frenzied punkish yelps the next. The Meat Carpenters are forever, man, if only for one night.
Corinthian Felt was seemingly reduced from its initial lineup-by-lottery — Staiano described it as “a quintet with three people in it.” But the band managed to fill up the Plough with a giant wall of dissonance, most of it owing to Jorge Blank’s squealingly distorted viola and vocals. In one loping ballad, he veered into a wiggly vibrato falsetto (the kind achieved by singing while shaking your head really fast), all while keeping a slow, ghostly fiddling wind blowing.
For better or for worse, Hammer Girth provided the single most memorable moment: The quartet threw itself into a sloggy parody of a grand rock opera like a nerdy Zeppelin, complete with hooded cloaks and incoherent mysticism. Get down with Mercury Retrograde, flautist Polly Moller sang in an overwrought falsetto, adding lightly tripping La la la vocals as if she were gamboling through the Swiss Alps. As a finale, one slow and bombastic riff kept building and building and building, but to no end — just starting over again and again until the audience was literally moaning and screaming for release from the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of blue balls. “Now let’s see whose song gets stuck in your head,” bassist Vicky Grossi crowed as the crowd continued to chant the riff once the band finally finished, amid cries that might as easily have been “uncle” as “encore.”
“Kill them!” someone shouted.
Potato Secretary’s night-ending set had a more pan-’60s air to it, mixing R&B hooks with psychedelic excess. But the band took Hammer Girth’s lead in closing with a showstopping, relentless riff. Initially a rock ‘n’ roll hook mixed with guitarist Pat Moran’s glam-rock vocals about an 18-year-old angel, it soon descended into a churning metal chorus punctuated by growls of They could never! Destroy our love! After enough repetitions to firmly pound it into your brain, this refrain eventually dissolved into a cacophony of squiggly keys and feedback, then a much-clamored-for reprise of the monstrous chorus.
When all was said and done, Staiano’s call for one last jam fell upon deafened ears, as everyone was well tuckered out. That is, if you don’t count the crowd at the back still singing that damn Hammer Girth riff.