Concert Reviews, Festivals, Music Fest NW, Portland

MFNW – The Butthole Surfers…Those Guys Are Crazy

Nick Hilden / September 10, 2011
Photos by Nick Hilden

The Roseland may be the perfect place to see the Butthole Surfers. It’s not because of any particularly pleasant aspect of the venue—there aren’t many—but rather due to the strangely Gilliam-Brazilian process that it takes to get into the place. First, you wait in line to go through this beeping machine so that this humanoid entity in a security uniform can search through your cigarettes before doing its best to break your camera by trying to remove its fixed lens in some strange attempt to find whatever it is that you’re smuggling in. I’m not sure what the beeping machine is for, can’t be a metal detector, because it beeps for everyone and the beeps seem to elicit no response from these security-machines posing as people. When the camera proves too hearty for their rough treatment, they just sneer and say in an automated voice, “You know the rules (Do I?), and if we catch you breaking them, we’ll confiscate this damn thing.”

My portrait of the Roseland security may be less than complimentary, but bear with me. As I said, it was the perfect setting for the Butthole Surfers.

Following this airportesque experience, you walk up the stairs where you are stamped and re-stamped about fourteen times. Then for a drink, you walk beneath an array of blacklights where a very nice lady in an outlandish outfit stamps you with an invisible stamp before you head upstairs to walk down a dimly-lit, narrow corridor lined by people. All of them look like maniacs. You’re finally at the bar where they tell you to go back to the bottom of the whole-rat run. Cash only. An ATM is promised to lurk somewhere below…

Once you’re inside, and you’ve hit up the ATM, and you have finally put a drink back to combat the sweltering heat of the balcony, going back to the floor is suddenly rather pleasant. A lot of happy people, no lines, no robots in sight. And then you notice the strangest thing about this particular concert: there are a whole bunch of kids there! They’re all young—fresh-faced, smiling and sober young. Like, born-after-“Pepper”-topped-the-charts young. I had entirely expected the show to be filled with the 30+ crowd, as I’d heard that most of the performances had been earlier in the tour. Not in Portland. Apparently, people of all ages here know where to go for some quality psychedelia.

And psychedelic it is. As the band leaps about the stage, nightmarish images flash on three screens behind them. Gibby manipulates his box of wires and knobs and it’s as if he’s cranking something that’s attached directly to your brain, and whatever it is spins faster and faster as the pitch rises. “Do you wanna hear a racist joke?” Silence, everybody waiting, expecting the worst. “Then go listen to a Rick Perry speech!  Another cheerleader from Texas…”

Gibby’s face looks as if it has been melted down ten or twelve times over. Bass player Jeff Pinkus bounces around the stage with the energy of a jackrabbit hopped up on amphetamines. When Paul Leary sings it looks as if it head might explode, much like the erupting head in that infamous scene from Scanners, which is of course showing again and again, blended in with the shock-and-awe imagery behind the band. I zoom my camera close in on King Coffee, and the expression he wears as he blasts the room with rhythm is spectacular. He looks as if he’s either having the best orgasm of his life—so good that he’s about to burst into tears then evaporate with happiness—or as if he’s being slowly and painfully ripped apart by devils, and he knows that the only way to keep the skin from peeling from his body is to keep drumming, don’t stop drumming, for the love of God, never stop drumming.

All in all, they look like guys who have been there. Whether they ever came back is up for debate.

At some point through the sonic madness, the crowd has the simultaneous realization that what we are hearing is some kind of improvisational version of “Pepper”, and while a few voices had been singing along with earlier songs, now the room is filled with the chorus. The mosh pit is overflowing with toothy, freak-out grins. Everyone is riding the wave.

After about an hour, the band leaves the stage. Everyone, of course, cheers for an encore, and, of course, the band is out moments later. They blast through a few more numbers before sending the room into space with a climbing mess of wailing guitars, electronic screeches, howling voices, crashing, destruction…

Those looking to relive the old insanity of a Butthole Surfers show, well, that was then. But unlike so many other bands from that era, these guys seem to have maintained their energy, enthusiasm, and edge of madness. There aren’t too many things that can break your brain as efficiently as the Butthole Surfers.

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