June 1, 2022
Live music during the pandemic remains a work in progress. While the number of shows happening in New York on any given night is steadily increasing, we still have a long way to go. We may never return to the staggering variety available to the music enthusiast prior to 2020, but we have to continue trying out new ways of presenting and experiencing shows as we continue to battle through successive waves of COVID infection.
In early June, in only my second visit to a rock club this year, I took in Bush Tetras at Elsewhere, a multi-stage venue in Bushwick. Originally scheduled for the outdoor rooftop stage, rain forced the show indoors, to the considerably more intimate Zone One, a room generally “dedicated to emerging artists.” There appeared to be fewer than one hundred people in attendance, so it didn’t feel uncomfortably crowded. The venue did confirm vaccination status but did not require masking, and the room felt well-ventilated. Overall, however, this was not a situation to recommend in terms of health and safety.
By most measures, Bush Tetras are not an emerging outfit. Formed in 1979 in Lower Manhattan, the original iteration of the band lasted only three years. During that time, they helped pioneer a hugely influential style of dance-oriented post-punk, sometimes described as “mutant disco,” that simultaneously emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. To this day they remain underground-famous for their debut single “Too Many Creeps” (99 Records, 1980), though their entire recorded output from the period, all fourteen-tracks- and fifty-minutes-worth, stands as essential repertoire of eighties alternative music.
In the nearly forty years since, Bush Tetras have periodically reappeared, often occasioned by reissues of their original studio recordings. Each of these revivals has produced new material, increasingly complicating the band narrative, and their discography remains a confusing riddle. Suffice it to say that, beginning with their mid-nineties return, their sound began turning toward a slower, more generic form of hard rock. With their most recent release, Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras—their most comprehensive compilation to date—on the Brooklyn-based Wharf Cat Records, we now have a clearer picture of their complete forty plus year career.
In this way, Bush Tetras are again emerging, and on this night, adding to the sense of something new, the band debuted Steve Shelley, formerly of Sonic Youth, as their new permanent drummer, replacing original drummer Dee Pop, who passed away unexpectedly last October. Other original members vocalist Cynthia Sley and guitarist Pat Place led the action, and the new lineup was filled out by recently joined bassist RB Korbet. Over the course of a roughly one-hour set, the band joyfully meandered through their entire history, touching on all the different eras. While the set included a few of the original dance-punk hits—“Too Many Creeps,” “You Can’t Be Funky,” “Cowboys in Africa,” and “You Taste Like the Tropics,” they’re certainly not resting on their laurels, as there were also a number of new songs, which seemed to further expand on a slower, more psychedelic brand of hard rock.
Bush Tetras have always been female-fronted; the original lineup, which also included the late bassist Laura Kennedy, was three-fourths female, and while never ostensibly a feminist band, they project as strong women. Now in their sixties, an age group not typically associated with underground rock stages, Sley and Pace also project a kind of freedom and knowingness that only comes with age. They are both engaging performers, each in possession of an authentic rock swagger, and fully invested in the joy of performing and connecting with the audience. Add to that Shelley’s topflight drumming and non-stop grinning behind the kit, with Korbet’s energetic bass lines, and it was pure pleasure getting swept up in the energy. There was also a sense of triumph in the room, for having survived not only the pandemic, but also for surviving four decades of life and loss in the New York musical underground and still rocking it.
The evening, which concluded at 10pm sharp (another concession to the pandemic?) also included some excellent DJing by Hugo Burnham, drummer of Gang of Four, the legendary British post-punk band that closely paralleled the sound and style of the original Bush Tetras. There was also an opening act, The Cradle, a solo artist who sang over backing tracks, but because of the heavy rains, I was delayed getting there and only caught the very end of the set.
What the future holds for attending shows is anyone’s guess. The next Bush Tetras shows appear to be on the West coast in September. It will be interesting to follow the band’s next chapter. Hopefully this new compilation will help bring them new fans and inspire more new material. I’m certainly rooting for them—I’ve been a fan since at least 1983 when I first saw them at the original Nightclub 9:30 in DC. I was a kid then and just starting to go to shows, and needless to say they made an impression, as here I am writing about it nearly forty years later!