Wednesday, March 4, 2009

BulletBoys sing! (unedited, and long)

For some reason I was compelled to spend Friday evening, Feb. 27, by myself.

When I say by myself, I don't mean home, alone. I was at a bar, but not with anyone I knew. I was there to hear the performance by what passes for the BulletBoys.

Based upon what I remember from various online resources, which should never be fully trusted, here's their story: The band's lead singer, Marq Torien, is the only original member of the band to have stuck it out for two decades. He was a guitarist in an early version of Ratt, and sang in some band on the Motown record label. Somehow he and three other dudes, none of whom I could ever name, got a record deal on Warner Bros. Records during the hair band era.

The band was compared to David Lee Roth-era Van Halen. I guess I didn't hear classic Van Halen in their music, but they were produced by some dude who was renowned for his work with VH, so there were some similarities, evidently.

The band's debut album had one original hit, and they got a lot of airplay for their cover of "For the Love of Money." It wasn't a hugely successful debut, as best I recall.

But the BulletBoys managed to tour with a few of the major bands at the time, so even if they weren't huge, they did OK.

They continued to record on Warner Bros. Records, releasing a follow up album, "Freakshow," that was decent. Their first single off that CD, "THC Groove," wasn't particularly strong, however, and although they released a couple of follow ups, nothing set the world on fire. (My favorite song on that CD turned out to be another cover tune, "Hang on St. Christopher," a song by Tom Waits, who has a cult following and a handful of acting credits to his name, but remains unknown to me.) I have no idea what the biggest BulletBoys headlining show was, but I can say confidently that they never headlined an arena show. A big club filled to capacity, perhaps, but that was probably as big as they got. I wouldn't be surprised if they were paired with a Warner Bros. heavy hitter for a tour after the release of Freakshow. Whatever their touring status, none of it mattered. The BulletBoys weren't destined to be a big deal.

When the grunge movement usurped hair band rock in the early 90s, it was over for most bands of that genre. Well, not entirely. Some of them still released CDs on major labels, but it didn't much matter if those discs were good or bad, the market had been all but abandoned by rock radio and MTV. For the BulletBoys, that final major label release was "Za-Za," a disc I have, and was not impressed by.

Along comes Dec. 1994. It's a grunge world, but hair bands are still trying to make a buck touring clubs and playing for die hard fans like me who still love the music, even if commercial radio traded Poison for Pearl Jam and every band that wanted to sound like Pearl Jam. This was pre-internet, at least the internet we all know and love. There was no satellite radio or streaming broadcasts on your computer of 80s rock. For us fans of the hair bands, there weren't many places we could turn for our daily fix of the music so many of us loved three years earlier.

As I was preparing to move to Canada, I had a chance to see the BulletBoys in Minneapolis on Dec. 3, 1994. It was my last weekend in the asphalt jungle before moving further north than I ever imagined I would. I would have preferred to spend that Saturday night hanging with friends, but there were not to be found that night, so I went to the show, by myself.

That was more than 14 years ago. I don't remember much, but I do recall that there was a decent crowd at the club. I didn't relish hanging out by myself at the long-since-closed venue, but it was a chance to see a band I was a fan of.

The show must have been decent. It didn't leave a bad taste in my mouth, because years later I went to see the band again. I don't remember the year, but if it wasn't at least five years ago, it was darn close. That show featured one BulletBoy, Marq, as best as I recall, and three guys who should be easily forgotten, but as it turns out, one of them has been a touring guitarist for former teen pop queens Mandy Moore and Hilary Duff.

I was not highly impressed by the show, and the crowd was rather sparse. It made me wonder how the BulletBoys could make any money touring when they were drawing at most a few hundred to a major metropolitan area.

Yet somehow the band has lived on for 20 years. I honestly don't know how, but last week they played two shows in Minnesota. One in a college town outside of the Twin Cities, on a Thursday night, and then a show in the Twin Cities the next night.

While the show from five or so years ago was rather forgettable, somehow I had to see this band one more time. I was prepared to pay the $10 cover charge, but as it turns out, I "won" tickets from a local radio station. I use the term "won" loosely, as I doubt anyone else e-mailed an entry to the station for the tickets. And yes, it cost me $10 to see a rendition of a band Warner Bros. spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upon 20 years ago. (They even had a home video or two, with interview snippets laced between their music videos.) I'll bet I paid more than $10 to see them live in 1994.

I arrived somewhat late, hoping not to be there much before the BulletBoys took the stage, but I got there in time to see Swirl setting up for their set.

There was a local opening act, evidently, and then Swirl took the stage. I'm a bit perplexed by this band. They're from Los Angeles, evidently, yet I saw them at the same mediocre restaurant/bar/club in early December, opening for Stephen Pearcy, the lead singer of Ratt. When I saw Swirl setting up prior to the BulletBoys, I figured they were a local act pretending to be from L.A.

But perhaps they are. Swirl -- which I assume derives its name from the fact that two dudes in the band are white, two are black -- is touring around the country with the BulletBoys for a month. I can't figure out how the BulletBoys make money off of touring, and they have an opening act touring with them? My guess is that Swirl is self-financed and can afford to play for free in clubs opening for an 80s nostalgia act.

Swirl isn't bad. I'm not sure they're any better than anything that can be found in any other dingy bar around the country, but perhaps they'll build enough an audience by touring and promoting their music that one day they'll be headlining club shows for 200 people all over the country.

I'm not sure if Swirl and the BulletBoys are sharing all equipment, but they had the same drum kit. The BulletBoys took the stage about 12:40 a.m.

Marq had long blond hair back in the day, but his natural hair color must be black, as he had black hair when I saw him in 1994. His hair is still black, and his face looks a little weathered. The dude is in great shape, it appears, although he's freakishly small. He can't be tall, he's not too muscular and he had toothpick legs, evident by the tight pants he wore.

He has long been mocked by Metal Sludge, a website that has kept 80s rock alive for more than a decade, for his "fruity" behavior on stage. Perhaps he has always been fruity and I just never noticed before, but he probably set off every gaydar in the Minneapolis area that night.

Perhaps it was his wide-jawed, eye-popping facial gestures. Perhaps it was his Elvis-like hip gyrating. Perhaps it was his apparent use of eye liner. Whatever it was, you'd have to think the guy is gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I remember thinking, "This guy is flamboyant." When is the last time you've heard a straight male described as flamboyant? That's right, never. And to top it off, the official Bulletboys MySpace page describes him as flamboyant. It's nobody's business whether Marq is gay or straight, but if it is ever publicly disclosed that he is gay, nobody will be surprised. (By the way, Marq, 1997 called, it wants its black fingernail polish back.)

As for the show, well it left something to be desired. While there's not a catalog of memorable hits, you'd think the band could muster up enough material to fill a solid hour. No such luck. They stretched to fill 50 minutes. I was not impressed.

Marq added one- to two-minute intros to some of their songs, and did this more than a couple of times. He also played an unaccompanied song midway through the set, dedicating it to the owner of one of the Hollywood rock clubs from back in the day, claiming the guy helped him make ends meet before the BulletBoys became a worldwide sensation. Despite the lackluster crowd on a Friday night in the middle of winter in Minnesota, he had done a good job of winning over the crowd, some of which was clearly too young to remember the BulletBoys back in the day. Then he killed it with his little ditty.

Their finale was the original hit that put them on the map, "Smooth Up In Ya." They had the dudes from Swirl join them on stage and help sing the chorus. They had a big party on stage, and people seemed to enjoy it. For a band playing to no more than 250 people, and maybe no more than 200, Marq and company did a good job of entertaining the crowd, as if it was 1991 all over again.

In the end, however, I walked away disappointed, and not likely to go out of my way to see the BulletBoys again.

As mentioned, the band barely played 50 minutes, and killed more than enough time during those 50 minutes to play another two songs. One of the songs they could have played: "Hang on St. Christopher." They've played it in the past, but they blew it off on Friday night. That angered me.

I would have happily put up with "Shake Me Awake" if it would have meant I could have heard St. Christopher. Shake Me Awake is a pop-punk song they played the last time I saw them live, and it sounded like the BulletBoys were trying to be Blink-182 or one of those bands that irritates me. It was promoted as new music by the band back then, and did indeed appear on a 2003 minor label CD that I'm guessing 20 people own.

As noted, Marq did a good job of working a small crowd, although he was damn annoying about it. He kept insisting people make noise before he'd start a song. He had to have done that a handful of times. And then there were the times he'd single out the women and men to make noise. It was so lame, and painful to watch. He'd get some participation. Not enough to blow the roof off the dump, but he kept trying.

I had read that the original bassist had rejoined the band. Well, I'm pretty sure it was some other guy in Minnesota. Not that I cared, but the band Marq had assembled didn't sound particularly tight. I'm not a musician, so I can't speak to how technically proficient the band was, but if I thought it was rather sloppy, it must have been.

I was glad Marq played his tribute song in the middle of the show. When I saw him several years ago he did it as the encore. It was just him and just that song, and I don't think many people were impressed, or moved. That night several years ago he dedicated the song to Ty Longley, who had been touring with Great White and died in the famous nightclub fire of 2003. Marq's dedication rang hollow. Marq talked like he had lost his brother in that fire. Perhaps Ty was a good friend, but Metal Sludge has slagged Marq more than once for these type of dedications, dedications that seemed a bit too embellished. Did Marq embellish his friendship with Ty? I have no idea, but it sounded like it. At least his 2009 tribute wasn't overly emotional.

Given the lackluster performance, there's little chance I'll see this band again, even with another free ticket. I was a fan back in the day, and there aren't many of us willing to support this footnote in hair band history. Despite Marq's facial orgasms and insistence upon the crowd making noise, his energy couldn't trump a lousy set.

It's clear Marq isn't touring for the love of money, there just can't be that much to be made. But whatever his reason, he ought to focus more on his musicianship rather than showmanship.

You had a nice run, Marq, but it's time to move on.