Rock Bottom Remainders, Supergroup Featuring Stephen King and Matt Groening, Take Final Bow at L.A.'s El Rey (Concert Review)
El Rey Theater
(Friday, June 22)
The 16-member band, which also includes authors Dave Barry, Amy Tan and Greg Iles and guest guitarist Roger McGuinn, among others, play rock stars for a night with a long set of covers and self-aware originals.
Great authors, whether of the bestselling sort or not, have more than their share of rabid fans, but they'll never compare to rock stars. Sure, a beloved book may move you but, likely, just with a solitary emotion. Whereas music, well, a good song or performance can literally move you -- and the dozens of others nearby -- to shake it up and dance.
So what a joy it must have been on Friday night for the members of the Rock Bottom Remainders, which includes authors Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, to feel that rock star excitement before a packed crowd at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. The cheers, the applause and the unfettered energy came from a mostly middle-aged audience singing and clapping along but the 16-person band made the best of it all, rolling through a set of classic rock covers and self-aware originals with cheery banter while exhibiting one hell of a good time onstage. It was the Rock Bottoms’ last public bow after 20 years of performing this somewhat ridiculous but very fun show, and it made the mood all the more celebratory.
The band's set, which started at 8:30 pm -- early for your average Friday night rock concert, but perfectly fitting for this occasion -- opened with the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic "The House Is Rockin'," sung by Barry. The band kicked in with big saxophone and harmonica solos and a bright, earnest energy that had Groening dancing on the wing in a Marge Simpson mask while the audience clapped along.
"Thank you! Now it gets much worse," Barry said before the band launched into The Beatles' "Paperback Writer" with a noble but fairly shabby attempt of hitting the opening harmonies. "It's a writer's song," he added.
Following duets by suspense writer and bassist Ridley Pearson and guest Janine Albom (wife of Tuesdays With Morrie-author and keyboardist, Mitch Albom) on Wilson Pickett's "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)" and "In The Midnight Hour," which both had the backup singers acting out hilariously gestured moves, Barry asked the audience, "Who wants to hear Stephen King sing a song?" And the crowd cheered the gawky 6'4" King into a garage-rocky version of Dee Clark's “Hey Little Girl.”
Said Barry to the crowd: "How many people here thought Amy Tan was a nice girl? You were dead wrong!" He threw out that declaration just as Tan strutted onstage in a shimmering gold skin-tight outfit, studded belt, sunglasses, leather biker cap and S&M whip in hand. The band promptly started into Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" with Tan singing lead. Two minutes later, during the song's final breakdown, everyone on stage turned around so Tan could discipline each bandmate with a lash on the back. The multi-talented King caught the leather strap with his teeth.
"I can't believe Stephen let you put that in his mouth," Barry said afterwards. "You don't know where that's been!"
"I know where that's been," King replied, sticking his tongue out at the audience and wiggling it with a perverted look in his eyes.
Later, Barry introduced The Byrds' lead singer and jingle-jangle guitarist Roger McGuinn, asking the audience, "Is there anyone here who's actually been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Roger McGuinn has!" A Byrds medley came next -- "Mr. Tambourine Man," "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," "My Back Pages" and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (worth noting: all but "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" were written by Bob Dylan) with McGuinn playing a cherry red Rickenbacker. No surprise here, dressed in black and hat cocked to the side, McGuinn was the only one who could pull off a fully convincing rock star attitude.
"I was lying when I said there was only one person here invited to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Barry said later. "He was invited posthumously, but he's here anyway as a ghost." Cue: Mitch Albom, who took the stage dressed as Elvis Presley in a gold jacket, sunglasses and slacks. With obscene hip moves, he sang "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" and then stripped down to a tank-top and striped pajama bottoms to deliver "Jailhouse Rock."
But competent covers aside, the band's original songs were a nice change of pace and added a bit more humor to the night. Like Greg Iles' "I'm a Big Best Seller," which was a straight-forward soulful blues number touting his success and ending with the lines, "I'm a big bestseller baby / All that rejection’s in my past / What I really want to say here is all you critics kiss my ass!"
Soon after, Barry sang his own "Proof Reading Woman," a cheery number with a call-and-response chorus that went, "I'm in love (He's in love) / With a proofreading woman / I'm gonna love her until the day I die / She's got a big dictionary, real good grammar / She never says, 'Between you and I.'"
Towards the show's end, things took a somber turn in remembrance of the band's founder Kathi Goldmark, who died of breast cancer in May. In her honor, McGuinn sang an unnamed Irish folk song. Albom later called for commemoration of the author Frank McCourt (affectionately calling him "a writer who had no musical talent") and songwriter Warren Zevon, both of whom also took turns playing in the Rock Bottom Remainders. "Kathi knew music could bring people together in a way they never would have found themselves," he said. "One of these days, we'll all be gone too, maybe this is the kind of song somebody will sing for one of us." And the band started into Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart."
With the night lingering in the sentimental, Barry exclaimed afterwards, "We can't leave you like this!" And in his gruff but squeaky voice, King asked, "You wanna bang your head a little bit?" and launched into The Trashmen's classic rocker "Surfin' Bird."
Covers of The Troggs' "Wild Thing" and an encore of The Doors' "Gloria" followed and closed the night, and while all three final performances were somewhat botched (the band even had to start "Wild Thing" over), no one really cared. The audience didn't come for musical perfection, it came for a carefree good time and that's what it got. The show wasn't cool, flawless or really all that spectacular, nor should it have been.
Afterwards, the band members tossed guitar picks and catering plates from backstage into the audience, taking pictures of the crowd, waving and bowing with massive ear-to-ear smiles. For one night, these celebrated writers turned into Hollywood rockers -- and mighty ones at that.
"The House Is Rockin'" (Stevie Ray Vaughan)
"Paperback Writer" (The Beatles)
"634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)"
(Wilson Pickett)"In The Midnight Hour" (Wilson Pickett)
"Hey Little Girl" (Dee Clark)
"I'm a Believer" (The Monkees)
"These Boots are Made for Walkin'" (Nancy Sinatra)
"Hey! Baby" (Bruce Channel)
"Susie Q" (Dale Hawkins)
"Mr. Tambourine Man" (The Byrds)
"I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" (The Byrds)
"My Back Pages" (The Byrds)
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (The Byrds)
"Rock This Town" (Stray Cats)
"It's Nobody's Fault but Mine" (Blind Willie Johnson)
"(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" (Elvis Presley)
"Jailhouse Rock" (Elvis Presley)
"Da Do Ron Ron" (The Crystals)
"Runaway" (Del Shannon)
"I'm a Big Best Seller" (Greg Iles) - original
"Leader of the Pack" (The Shangri-Las)
"Proof Reading Woman" (Dave Barry)
"Mustang Sally" (Wilson Pickett)
"Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)" (The Byrds)
"Older than Him" (Kathi Goldmark)
"Keep Me in Your Heart" (Warren Zevon)
"Surfin' Bird" (The Trashmen)
"Wild Thing" (The Troggs)
"Gloria" (The Doors)