The group was old. No getting around that. Neighborhood stragglers wandering into Slabtown last Saturday wondered about the size of the crowd so late at night, looking to the stage with puzzled delight. It wasn’t a “dad band”; there was no hobbyists’ self-satisfaction, but the music didn’t have the dull professionalism (or tightness) of ever-gigging career musicians, either. The singer—red jacket, acid-washed jeans torn to shreds, mod coif untended—had more than a touch of the infinite, helplessly watchable-yet-peculiar rock-star magic that blends neediness and uncontrollable id. The tunes seemed familiar: thrilling tracks from the better of New Wave comps—or, at least, songs that should’ve been featured as such. All of it begged the question: Who the fuck is Theatre of Sheep?
Twenty-five years ago, Theatre of Sheep strode atop the beginnings of Cool Portlandia. Women swooned, scenes congealed and the band engendered proto-hipster adoration to a degree now beyond imagining. Legendary Wipers frontman Greg Sage produced the band’s vinyl-only debut. Frontman Rozz Rezabek gave ex-flame Courtney Love (once Courtney Harrison) her rocker name; he thrashed backstage with Johnny Rotten at the Sex Pistols’ final show, took a teenage Joan Jett to Deep Throat, and shall be remembered in punk histories (his own forthcoming) ever after. But in 1984, just as the band began to trouble the charts, Rezabek left for San Francisco, and Theatre of Sheep—with its lone EP never properly released—fell to legend.
You’ve seen this movie, right? You know the supposed endings—careerist rebirth or train wreck. But, due to the nature of punk icons, comebacks and crashes aren’t mutually exclusive. As such, Jimi Haskett, guitarist and founding member, led the band—featuring Rezabek on vocals and original member Jim Wallace on bass/keys—through an alt-universe hit list of musicians’ punk this past Saturday. Much as the term ever meant anything, Theatre of Sheep plays New Wave: four-on-the-floor guitar rawk leavened by melodic flourishes and anthemic choruses.
Though years have worn the voicebox (Slabtown’s sound system didn’t do any favors, either), Rezabek tweaked his style toward a Lemmy growl, effectively enlivening the band’s aggro-pop. But once onstage—unfortunate wardrobe and clumsy hip thrusts notwithstanding—Rezabek’s vocals weren’t really the point: In and above the crowd, atavistic preening was wed to showman instincts, and Rezabek managed that neatest of tricks—theatricality without artifice.
One song found him crumpled into the fetal position on the black riser, bald spot turned to the crowd, repeating the refrain, “Don’t believe in drugs/ What do you believe in?” well after the band had stopped playing. Between-song patter, as well, flitted from VH1 Storytellers moments to the worst sort of MTV Behind the Music anecdotes—never melancholy, always sort of poignant.
This wasn’t Theatre of Sheep’s first reunion, and it won’t likely be the last: Rezabek and Haskett have done a handful of shows over the past decade, and they’re currently recording new material—as well as re-recording old faves, which appear on this year’s Old Flames—at Haskett’s studio. But New Wave’s still a young man’s game, and by the time TOS reached “Glamour,” its only charting single, Rezabek could barely stay on key. Strangers in the crowd traded glances, their communal pride fading to worry.
“Glamour” was a good tune, a simmering power ballad à la ballsier Simple Minds, and, since most nobody in the crowd knew the TOS songbook, the chorus took us by surprise: It featured a keening climax built upon a slow-burning crescendo, and Rezabek utterly nailed it, driving the high note—and the moment—home. As an ecstatic wave broke through the crowd, Haskett, suddenly grinning after an evening’s workaday crouch, strolled over mid-riff to whisper in his frontman’s ear, and they finished the song arm in arm.
Minutes afterward, both pretended not to remember what was said. And the legend grows.
Theatre of Sheep’s Old Flames is available through its MySpace or at cdbaby.com. Photo: Rezabek, taken by Tom Oliver.