Musical Musings: Hugs & Kisses' election night spectacle at Carabar

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

While my Alive colleagues were compiling an entertaining live election blog at Eddie George's, I was down at Carabar preparing to experience the weird and wonderful world of Hugs & Kisses. Donny, Jacoti, Phonzie and the boys from The Slide Machine had cooked up something special called "Black Tuesday," and I wasn't about to miss it.

Hugs & Kisses have always been a bizarre proposition. Two or three years ago, the original group of Donny Monaco, Jacoti Sommes and Phonzie Davis began devising goofy short plays with lip-synced dialogue and pre-recorded music that bridged the gap between hip-hop, doo-wop and Saturday morning cartoons. After writing the songs and conceiving a story around them, the trio and their friends would dress up in ridiculous costumes — a talking toilet, a giant pregnant bird — and present the absurdist performances with straight faces. It was polarizing; you either giddily appreciated Hugs & Kisses' vision or you angrily dismissed it as a bunch of art school nonsense.

For a while I was a hater, but eventually, around the time they released their album, The Casualties of Happiness, in the winter of 2007, Hugs & Kisses clicked for me. My newfound admiration stemmed partly from seeing enough of their skits to get on the same wavelength as these guys and partly from hearing the album, which far exceeded my expectations. Without the benefit of visuals, they were able to create an experience just as immersive as their stage show, and the songs were good to boot.

Anyway, as with any restless oddball geniuses, Hugs & Kisses' shtick evolved. This year they recruited young prog-loving hard rock quartet The Slide Machine to add live music to their stage show. Last night's "Black Tuesday" was my first experience with the expanded lineup.

When I walked into Carabar a few minutes before 11, the place was crawling with presumably left-leaning types who were excitedly watching the electoral votes piling up for Barack Obama. Any doubt about the room's political affiliation evaporated minutes later when the networks began calling the election for the Illinois Democrat. John McCain gave a gracious concession speech, we mingled, Obama gave an inspiring victory speech, we mingled some more, and finally Hugs & Kisses hit the stage.

Donny was rocking a suit and tie, while Phonzie and Jacoti were in some sort of nose-and-mustache disguises. The Slide Machine manned their instruments in line across the back of the stage, each decked out in KISS facepaint and a big, black wig. They embarked into a celebratory 20-minute extravaganza that incorporated samples of "The Humpty Dance," a re-working and rejection of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," masks of McCain, Obama and Hillary Clinton, drums of several varieties, one booty-dancing Sarah Palin and two big black dicks.

It was as much of a spectacle as any other Hugs & Kisses show, but what set this one apart from my past experiences with the group was that it felt more like a drug-fueled rock show than a drug-fueled morality play. There was a refrain of sorts — the recurring "Smells Like Teen Spirit" stuff — but I didn't latch onto any obvious narrative. It was more like a collage of ideas. And given the way the zany fragments were presented one after another, plus the visceral power of live instrumentation, it felt more like a conventional rock concert than any Hugs & Kisses show I've ever seen.

That's not to say it was anything less than unique. "Black Tuesday" was unmistakably the work of Hugs & Kisses. And while I hope they don't completely abandon the linear storytelling they started out with, I'm glad they feel free to step outside their own precedents and into whatever outlandish direction they please. Is it really so audacious to hope more bands will let their freak flag fly in such hilarious, shocking and life-affirming ways?