They may be good Midwesterners, polite and well-spoken in conversation, and gentle when bludgeoned, but the Von Bondies know how to be not so nice. Live at Great American Music Hall, the band’s whiff of radio-friendly varnish turns to a depraved sheen in the heat of the moment. The songs of the Von Bondies frontman, Jason Stollsteimer, turn in on their demonic volition.
By some strange turn of the screw, Stollsteimer, most famous for being physically attacked in a bar by once friend and mentor Jack White, is now the next latest thing out of Detroit. Stollsteimer never hit back at White. As Von Bondies bassist Carrie Smith tells me a few days before they play in San Francisco, “That’s just not Jason.” She adds, backing up her bandmate, “I wouldn’t have either.”
But watching them play, you would never think Stollsteimer, gifted with a Jim Morrison roar, is gentle or sweet. Inside the club, the band’s smoldering rock ‘n’ roll moves the immovable scenesters and indifferent record store clerks, normally cemented to the floor. Alcohol wins out over reason, and everyone in the audience takes some time to stop thinking so hard about everything. It feels really good to stop.
Stollsteimer’s bass voice, always on cue, matches the perfectly timed guitar hooks during the band’s set. As members of a generation that grew up without authentic rock ‘n’ roll — only ironic references to it — the Von Bondies have gracefully resurrected 1960s and 1970s icons like Jim Morrison, Hendrix and the New York Dolls without seeming too self-consciously “retro.”
Since the March release of the band’s sophomore album, the Jerry Harrison-produced Pawn Shoppe Heart, on the Ramones’s Sire label, the Von Bondies have been touring the United States. When I talk to Smith, she has just stepped off the bus in El Paso, Texas, slightly bewildered and out of sorts. Her manager tells her our phone interview is happening, as in now, sixty seconds before we speak.
Rather than scowling, what’s a nice Michigan girl to do but profess that she is grateful about her career? “It’s been a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” she says, adding dreamily, “I’ve gotten to see some amazing, beautiful cities.”
Between playing shows, Smith finished reading a biography of L.A. noir author John Fante and gushes over the bands she’s toured with previously, including the Rapture and Scottish sensation Franz Ferdinand. “We’ve made lasting friendships with them,” she says, like a high school groupie. “When we cross paths, like in New York with the Rapture, we still hang out.”
Although music magazines including NME are touting Detroit as the answer to rock ‘n’ roll, her verdict on her hometown is succinct. “It’s not a lot of fun,” she says. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone moving to Detroit, especially if they’ve lived in a larger city. I hate the winters.”
Bad weather and worse moods breeds Detroit’s taut, unambiguously defiant sound. “Detroit has always had a great music scene,” Smith says, adding that some of her favorite Motor City bands include the Valentinos, the Dirtbombs and the Waxwings. “There’s not much to do except see bands.”
Smith, still new to the rock-star lifestyle, is taking fame in stride. “Probably the weirdest thing is people asking for my autograph,” she says. “I don’t understand why someone would want some letters on a piece of paper.”
Her dad traveled to San Francisco to see her band at the Great American Music Hall. Those in the know wave hello to him too. Outside the club, Jack White’s friends, Detroit transplants, smoke cigarettes, no harm done, and compliment each other on their outfits.
“We’re all just like normal people,” says Smith. And as for Jack White: “We were never friends; more like acquaintances.”