UGLY KID JOE MAKE THEIR LONG-AWAITED RETURN TO NORTH AMERICA!
Date: May 26, 2023
Venue: Lovedrafts Brewing Co.
Location: Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, USA
Reviewer: Jeff Onorato
Photos: Jeff Onorato
Despite releasing a slew of great albums throughout the years, Ugly Kid Joe are a band that just do not tour the United States very often. Well, not at all really. That could be due to a myriad of reasons such as paltry tour support from their label, dwindling demand, geography of band members, or the exorbitant costs associated with touring in today’s market. Whatever the reason, the skies have parted for the Ugly Kids to make their triumphant return to U.S. soil. Supporting their excellent new album, Rad Wings of Destiny, the band have embarked on their first stateside jaunt in 27 years with Fozzy and Pistols At Dawn in support. Granted, they were inactive as a unit from 1997 to 2010, but the fact remains that stateside fans can now rejoice at the long-awaited opportunity to see the Ugly Kids live.
Joined by drummer Cam Greenwood, bassist Mike Squires, and guitarist Chris Catalyst, this configuration of the band is headed by original frontman Whitfield Crane and lead guitarist Klaus Eichstadt. Long-time rhythm guitarist Dave Fortman, who joined in 1992, had to depart the tour early for personal reasons. Deriving their name from a tongue-in-cheek spin on Pretty Boy Floyd’s moniker, the outfit rose to fame in the early ’90s on the overwhelming success of their debut single “Everything About You” from their EP As Ugly As They Wanna Be. It was an almost-instant MTV smash and, in constant rotation, quickly catapulted the band to fame. With their song also featured in the Wayne’s World flick, Ugly Kid Joe won a coveted touring opportunity with the Prince of Darkness himself, opening for Ozzy Osbourne on his No More Tears campaign. Throughout the early to mid-’90s, the band went on to release a series of superb to mediocre albums, with America’s Least Wanted, Menace To Sobriety, and Motel California comprising the collection and representing that gamut of quality that I speak of. When I first heard the news of on-sale dates for shows several months ago, I didn’t waste any time grabbing my tickets. As my concert date drew closer, I tried to avoid any online reviews of the tour. I wanted to take it in with an untarnished perspective or any expectations. I also was curious to see whether or not the band would play music from all of the albums mentioned above or if this tour would simply be a greatest hits run through their Mercury years.
Pistols At Dawn
For this tour, Ugly Kid Joe were supported by Pistols At Dawn and Fozzy for most of the shows. Unfortunately, Fozzy were not on the bill for a handful of dates and the Mechanicsburg, PA gig was one of them. Atlanta’s Pistols At Dawn stepped up to the plate and proceeded to warm up fans eager to see Ugly Kid Joe’s headlining performance. Undaunted by their role as the sole support act on this stop, they delivered a performance that surely won them a few new Pennsylvania fans among those that arrived early enough to catch their set. Admittedly far more modern rock-oriented than the headliner that they were opening for, I was still eager to catch Pistols At Dawn after hearing their 2022 album Ascension earlier this year. At the heart of the down-tuned guitars, soaring, angst ridden vocals, somber melodies and pummeling rhythms that permeate the recording are catchy choruses and memorable songs that make this disc a keeper.
Ascension is their most recent release and, even if not the most groundbreaking, it’s packed with sweeping peaks and valleys that keep things interesting throughout the very concise eight-song CD. Despite these contemporary, alt-metal attributes that their sound is stacked with, Pistols At Dawn don’t come across as a billing mismatch with tour mates Ugly Kid Joe, who have loosely circled this very same musical territory at times and particularly during the mid-’90s. In keeping with that willingness to explore a broader incorporation of styles, lead singer Whitfield Crane even went on to front Another Animal with the members of Godsmack during Ugly Kid Joe’s extended hiatus. Pistols At Dawn have those same, varied influences and aggressive style that they draw inspiration from, much like the headliner that they’re supporting.
Opening up their show with “Gauntlet” from their self-titled, 2019 EP, the Pistols ambitiously made it their mission statement to level the crowd to rubble. They succeeded at that goal, making the most of their approximately 30 minutes on stage with maximum impact. “Fly” is one of the more melodic tunes found on their new album, and it followed without the band appearing to lose any of their momentum. Pistols’ lead vocalist Chris Hodges strived to keep us compelled and really shines as the band’s frontman. His colossal vocals and manic stage presence cut through the soundscape, beckoning attention to his anguished but emotive lyrical spatter. His talents have been in high demand lately, with the singer also having been tapped as the guest vocalist on the recent Grey Daze tour, filling the cavernous vacancy left behind by the late Chester Bennington. Beneath all of the vocal effects that permeate Pistols At Dawn’s sound, I could hear a clean, robust voice with tremendous range and a bullseye on harmony. It’s there, but you have to listen for it amidst all of the chaos that the band kicks up on stage. After just one show, I could see why Hodges stays so busy – he’s a monster behind the microphone. Throughout the Pistols’ set, he sang hunkered over from the front most edge of the stage leaning above those in the front row to belt out his lines. Invested in his performance, there were even a few moments where I thought he was going to leap down into the crowd. If the audience had filled in any tighter, I’m almost certain he would have dived in.
Cut loose by a massive, nasty guitar groove, “Cold” was a heavy number that stood out in the Pistols At Dawn set, highlighted by the death march drumming style of Adam Jaffe who was a hard-hitting machine behind his kit. With most of the audience presumably unfamiliar with Pistols At Dawn’s original music, the guys were mindful of that and threw in a flawless cover of “Man In The Box” by Alice In Chains to bridge the gap. “Are you guys ready to sing?” questioned Chris Hodges, as the band tore into their tightly performed rendition of this hard rock classic. Their goal was met – everyone in the club was singing along to the distorted, crunching rhythm that the Pistols were hammering out. This was one of those times that a cover absolutely worked in a band’s set and it actually served as an icebreaker. Future guitar hero John William James then delivered a dizzying guitar solo that was impressive beyond his age. At just 22, he possesses a natural affinity for his instrument, and I can foresee big things for him in his future. Otherwise comprised of guitarist Devin White and bassist Sean Benham, the same can be said of the entire group. They’re all confident, skilled players who are audibly gridlocked together into a tight unit that’s ready to climb to the next level. With the continuation of prime touring opportunities such as this and more exposure, there’s no reason why Pistols At Dawn couldn’t break big.
Following that tribute to one of Seattle’s best, the band began to wrap up their short time on stage with two of their most instant draws, “The Truth” and “Under The Surface”. These are both prime selling points of Ascension’s worthiness in your CD collection, and apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way since the band opted to finish out their set with this pair of kickass gems. The former rooted in the more mellow, inviting end of the band’s spectrum, “The Truth” has all the facets of a hit single at radio. In contrast, “Under The Surface” has sharp edges that dig in and the band intuitively saved it for last to finish us off after the whirlwind that we had just experienced. Pistols at Dawn’s short set felt like a teaser, whetting my appetite for more music from this exciting, versatile band. It seemed as though we were just getting going, and their show was over. Pistols At Dawn have the songs, performance level, and a cool vibe about them — all the makings of a modern rock smash. They’re on the runway, cleared for takeoff.
Pistols At Dawn’s setlist:
05. Man In The Box (Alice In Chains cover) / Guitar Solo
06. The Truth
07. Under the Surface
Ugly Kid Joe
In the past decade, Ugly Kid Joe have given us what is undeniably some of their finest work since their inception with Stairway To Hell and Uglier Than They Used Ta Be. Both stand tall as keepers in their catalogue and are easily on par with their ’90s releases and at times, even surpassing those first few discs in terms of songwriting and production qualities. Endowed with incredible songs, a rawness, and honed musicianship showcasing those attributes, the band has grown tremendously over the years without venturing outside of the familiar territory that their fanbase know and love them for. In late 2022, the outfit re-emerged with another notch to their winning track record, with the Mark Dodson-produced Rad Wings of Destiny. Dodson previously worked with the band on their America’s Least Wanted LP and brought back all of those prized elements that made that record such a standout in Ugly Kid Joe’s discography.
Keen on that delivery of quality product to devotees, the band included several newer songs in their set. “That Ain’t Livin’” was the first batter up to the plate and is an homage to Bon Scott-era AC/DC, proving that Ugly Kid Joe aren’t shy about paying tribute to their influences. When the band members hit the stage, they were met with an overwhelming response from the audience who, like me, were thrilled to finally be seeing them in concert after so many years. From there, the guys sonically time travelled back to 1992 and the release of their first full-length LP. But don’t let the title of their now classic, sophomore album fool you. As proven by the huge crowds that they’re drawing in on this tour, Ugly Kid Joe are anything but “America’s Least Wanted”. Often presenting their music with a wink, smile, and skyward middle finger, their lewd, California-kid attitude is part of their charm.
Album number two from the band captured that essence and was one of their most commercially successful releases, spawning the hit singles “Neighbor” and “Cat’s in The Cradle”. You know you’re doing something right when Rob Halford makes an appearance on your record! To that end, I was taken off guard to hear “Neighbor” so early in the band’s set and would have expected to hear it as they were wrapping things up for the night. No foul, it received an overwhelming response from the audience from the very first guitar lick that gave it away. Whit then asked of the crowd, “Do you guys want a special set or the usual set tonight?” and the roaring consensus was a “Yes”.
After the impromptu voting had ended, we were treated to “Dear Friends Play” from Rad Wings of Destiny in tribute to the band’s fallen musical heroes. Side note – If you listen to the album version, you can hear someone why sounds an awful lot like Bon Scott at the end of the track. It was cool to hear the band break this one out for the show, especially given that it’s more of a rarity and they haven’t been playing it at every stop on the tour. And for fans of the Rad Wings album, there was more to come from the LP. Introduced as “the song that guitarist Klaus Eichstadt wrote about his love life”, “Failure” was another Rad Wings of Destiny standout featured in the band’s set. Having listened to the new album on countless occasions now, I’d have to say this is one of many high points on the record.
Chronologically, the band crisscrossed albums two and three for the majority of the show. 1995’s Menace To Sobriety may have been a commercial disappointment for the band, but unless your singer wore flannel, Doc Martens, or a beanie, chances are your band wasn’t selling CDs in ’95. With the encroachment of grunge in the mid-’90s, times were tough and that’s even for a hybrid, anti-image type of band like Ugly Kid Joe. Hell, they take the stage in shorts and t-shirts. It doesn’t get any less image conscious than that. Regardless of how well Menace sold (or didn’t sell, as the case may be), the album boasts a lot of cool material. Thankfully, this record wasn’t left out in the cold when the band was picking which songs to play on the tour. I’d be lying if I said that these received as warm of a reception as some of their earlier material, but they did from me. You just can’t please everyone when working up the setlist. I like hearing the occasional obscurity or two and not just the singles.
If you liked “Neighbor”, how could you not like the similarly structured “Jesus Rode A Harley”? It’s more or less the same song with different lyrics, and the band followed up “C.U.S.T.” with this hard-hitting tune – also taken from their third LP. The songs from Menace are highly adaptable to the stage. They’re fast, aggressive, and have choruses that you can sing right along to. That’s due largely to frontman Whitfield Crane, although he’s never been what I consider an ambitious vocalist in terms of technique. His singing is far from pristine and therein lies the beauty of it. Much like the legendary Lemmy Kilmister, his unvarnished, gritty vocal style is perfectly suited for the band’s music. I consider Ugly Kid Joe’s tunes to be distinct, due in part to Crane’s raspy tone which is an essential part of their sound. He can get nasty on a song like “V.I.P.” or switch it up with a softer delivery on something like “Cat’s In The Cradle” or “Candle Song”. Following “C.U.S.T.”, Whitfield asked “What is Mechanicsburg known for?”. In unison, the crowd spurted out “Poison!” without hesitation. Taking a second to register that quick response, he recollected “We met Poison back in 1994 and Bret Michaels was the coolest motherfucker ever”, which won both laughter and applause. Without thinking twice, guitarist Klaus Eichstadt then effortlessly ripped into the opening lick of “Talk Dirty To Me”, with the band joining him for the first few bars of the Poison hit. All of which were done for a successful comedic effect.
As cool as their first three discs are, I’m happy that the band opted to span almost their entire career with a setlist comprised of songs from most of their releases. The black sheep being 1996’s Motel California album, which was vacant in the show. Pity, since we heard at least one song from every other record. They could have potentially tossed in “It’s A Lie” or “Little Red Man” for full representation, but I’d have to say Motel California is even more of a sleeper with fans than Menace. That being said, if they were going to skip an album in the show, this is the one to bypass. I’ve seen a few bands of late focusing their entire show upon one or two albums from their entire career and it’s become a point of contention with me, so any band that plays music from six of their seven records gets high marks from me. While it could be argued that “Ace of Spades” is a cover, and that’s certainly true, it also appeared on their 2015 album Uglier Than They Used Ta Be, so I’m just going with it.
The only aspect of Ugly Kid Joe’s show that I was slightly disappointed by was the absence of original bassist Cordell Crockett and guitarist Dave Fortman. When you only get to see a band live once or twice in their career, you want the people on the stage to be the actual musicians who played on the albums and not hired guns. For reasons unknown, Crockett didn’t take part in the tour despite his contribution to the new album. That’s not to take anything away from touring bassist Mike Squires, who had the parts down pat but anytime an original member is M.I.A., realistically it changes the chemistry and persona of the band. Dave Fortman was also missed but had to bail on the tour abruptly to head home. However, his understudy Chris Catalyst was no slouch, and he had the guitar parts down note for note. The flip side to my quibbling is that these replacement players enabled the tour to continue when it might not have been able to otherwise.
During “Milkman’s Son”, the band encountered temporary sound issues when Whitfield Crane’s microphone abruptly went dead, and the frontman scrambled to grab Klaus Eichstadt’s mic stand to finish out the song. Annoyed with the ongoing technical glitches plaguing his performance, the singer then proceeded to hastily rip out the input cords from the back of both vocal monitors that were facing him as two roadies scrambled to clear the disconnected boxes from the stage. Crane did his best to shrug the incident off, and I couldn’t detect any gremlins in “Godamn Devil” as the band continued on with their show. Just the opposite, as the singer did his very best to replicate the Metal God’s piercing falsetto that endows the recorded version. And he did a good job echoing Halford’s wail!
Ugly Kid Joe’s salute to the founding fathers of metal didn’t end there. Following an impromptu check to the tuning of his strings near the back of the stage, bassist Mike Squires then moved front and center to feverishly rattle off the signature bassline that kickstarted Ugly Kid Joe’s rendition of “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead. Easily a crown jewel of their set, his splintering, trebly bass solo incited what seemingly had the walls of the venue shaking and everyone in between them rocking to what I consider one of metal’s all-time greatest songs. I don’t think anyone was shocked that Ugly Kid Joe chose to save their biggest hit for the finale. That clean, dreamy guitar line that opens “Everything About You” was a shot fired out to the occupants of Lovedrafts to go bananas for what is a fan favorite and Billboard smash. Reacting much as they did for “Neighbor”, the audience’s reception to this song was off the rails and the perfect ending to Ugly Kid Joe’s show.
Ugly Kid Joe performing “Ace of Spades” live at Lovedrafts Brewing Co. in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, USA on May 26, 2023 (video from Jim Powers‘ YouTube page):
In a land far removed from the realm of lavish stadium tours, big budget video shoots, and mainstream radio play, Ugly Kid Joe are about as unglamorous, blue collar, and street level as a working band can get. Save for the big tour bus that they travel in, they’re largely a no-frills kind of band. Their return to the road has been met with an unbelievable turnout from their loyal following, who are diehard in their love of the band and have turned up in droves to catch this tour. I even spotted three fans wearing Pretty Boy Floyd shirts in a subtle nod to the origin of the band’s name. Ugly Kid Joe continue to have a strong fanbase to this day, but they aren’t afraid to swim upstream to get their new music heard by the masses. Rad Wings of Destiny is a remarkable album, and any record collection is all the better for having the LP added to it. Ugly Kid Joe’s carefree days of creating bare-bones, cut-above garage band rock n’ roll are upon us once more. Not too shabby for two childhood friends from Santa Barbara, who haven’t forgotten their glory days in their forward march with brand new music.
Ugly Kid Joe’s setlist:
01. That Ain’t Livin’
05. Jesus Rode A Harley
06. Panhandlin’ Prince
07. Dead Friends Play
08. No One Survives
09. Devil’s Paradise
10. So Damn Cool
11. Cat’s In The Cradle (Harry Chapin cover)
12. I’m Alright
14. Milkman’s Son
15. Goddamn Devil
16. Come Tomorrow
17. Ace of Spades (Motörhead cover)
18. Everything About You
Ugly Kid Joe performing “Everything About You” live at Lovedrafts Brewing Co. in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, USA on May 26, 2023 (video from Jim Powers‘ YouTube page):