“We got no water, and we got no beer,” says Royal Headache lead singer Shogun as the band prepares to play its set at the Cake Shop Wednesday night. “Just putting it out there.” When no one in the crowd reacts, the lanky, baggy-golf-shirt-sporting frontman offers to pay $10 to anyone in the audience who can get him a drink. Still, no response. Finally, a guy from the crowd emerges and hands Shogun a Stella Artois, refusing payment for his act of kindness. Shogun thanks him for the beer and calls out, “You’ll be rich in heaven.”
One has to assume that most Royal Headache shows begin with similar transactions. The Australian garage-rock foursome released its 2011 self-titled debut in the States back in May and it’s the type of record that makes you want to buy the band a drink. The group plays a scrappy, aggressive take on ’60s blues-indebted power-pop and lovelorn ’70s croon-punk that will sound familiar to anyone who lurks around the Goner forum or will listen to any record released on In The Red. It’s garage-rock with a twist (’cause there has to be a twist), and the twist here is Shogun’s voice. Where many gutter-punk luminaries are content with shouting or mumbling their way through albums, Shogun brings an intense, emotive touch of Sam Cooke to his Robert Pollard-inflected singing.
Before Royal Headache takes the stage, Home Blitz plays a brief set of unassuming songs that toggle between post-punk braininess and AC/DC brawniness. Like Royal Headache, the group has a compelling frontman in lead singer Daniel DiMaggio, whose combination of snarling and yearning gives every song an idiosyncratic heart. DiMaggio, sporting a bright red T-shirt and a shaved head, invests each song with feeling, even if his wordy lyrics are often hard to make out over the roar of the band’s two guitars. Guitarist Theresa Smith lends welcome backing vocals to DiMaggio’s anguished yelps, giving certain songs a bristling urgency, while others sound a bit muddy and indistinct. The set ends with a joyous racket, but so do most of the band’s songs.
Royal Headache is similarly joyful and defiant. Unlike Home Blitz, who don’t share a word with the crowd and speak only to the sound guy in the back, Royal Headache’s frontman, Shogun, is friendly and self-deprecating throughout the set. Before introducing the nostalgia-tinged ballad “Honey Joy” Shogun remarks, “We blew it on the record. Maybe we can redeem it tonight.” Redeem it they do. Though the crowd goes especially apeshit for the album’s rollicking one-two gutpunch of “Psychotic Episode” and “Girls,” most of the physical energy comes from Shogun himself. The band’s bassist and guitarist lurk toward the back of the stage with their backs turned in a little antisocial huddle around the drummer. It’s an onstage formation that screams, “We’re not the show. Look elsewhere for entertainment.”
Luckily, Shogun provides enough showmanship and laughs. He stalks the stage, clutching the mic with both hands like the handlebars of bike he’s about to fly off. His voice is appropriately unhinged and controlled when it needs to be. He could use less reverb, but that type of vocal nudity will likely come with more confidence and experience. What matters now is that he sells the earnest psycho-drama of the band’s pastiche-rock, and he does that with a lumbering, awkward grace. He withers under the Cake Shop’s glowing Christmas lights like he has an eel for a spine. Toward the end of the set, he removes his golf-shirt because of the heat, and right before the encore the guitarist leaves to fetch him another drink. He deserves it.