Slyly sexy, controversial and often just sloppy, ’90s gutter r’n’r shamen Royal Trux always kept their critics and audiences guessing, and more times than not, pleasantly surprised and confused. The polarizing duo of lovers built their legacy on raw junk-punk fueled by drugs, a seductive swagger and a cooler-than-thou attitude only to eventually polish their slough sound into catchy, bootstompin’ blues rock for a post-punk era.
Built on bravado and running on residue, the wheels finally fell off mid-tour in 2001, as Neil Michael Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema parted ways, as a band and a couple. Both would go on to form their own groups with guitar virtuoso Hagerty recording under his own name and then as Howling Hex, while Herrema moved to the West Coast and recorded chaotic beach metal beauty as RTX and then Black Bananas.
Fourteen years later, continually swearing off a reunion, these veterans of disorder agreed to play one more show. Their cultish following had grown, their records have been re-released, and their infamous legacy and influence has reached a new generation of listeners eager to watch them play.
They could have played anywhere, but in the end, they chose to headline the third day of the three-day Berserktown II festival last weekend at the Observatory in Santa Ana, CA. Located in a business park in Orange County surrounded by strip malls and parking lots, Berserktown stacked over 100 bands into 12-hour days and three stages. The crowd grew in numbers, and their was a palpable anticipation and suspense in the air as the Trux took the stage just before midnight.
There was no big announcement or grand entrance. Nobody even seemed to notice Hagerty setting up his own guitars in the dim light. Yet when Jennifer unmistakably walked into the room, people began to cheer. Still, there was nothing ceremonious, except for Herrema lighting some sage and walking it around the perimeter of the stage. Sadly, not even this gesture could save the show though.
After seeing Herrema at her most commanding at recent Black Bananas shows, it would seem like Royal Trux would’ve prepared enough to floor their fans and leave everyone begging for more, but instead it seemed much like their last, doomed tour 14 years earlier. While Hagerty stoically and effortlessly soloed through the majority of the set, Herrema struggled to remember the words, hit her cues or even get a sound out of her wood flute. Strangely spending most of the set laying on the ground or sitting in front of the drumkit, at times it was almost as if they were doing two completely different songs. It was intriguing and perplexing (as usual?), but it didn’t seem like the way to come back/go out again.
Despite the spectacle, the setlist itself was exceptional. With the majority of the songs off of the 1997 Singles, Live, Unreleased compilation, the deepest of cuts were delivered with welcomed surprise. Playing an unusally extensive 17-song set, the Trux even got so esoteric as to pull out a chaotic version of Ice Cream from the oft-overlooked 1990 Twin Infinitives album.
Of course efficiency and taught musicianship was never a Royal Trux live show hallmark. Still, loose songs became even looser to the point of falling apart. Red Tiger and Mercury were beautiful disasters. Bad Blood seemed to carry a deeper, more relevant meaning this time around, even though it was written back in the ’80’s. Toward the middle of the set Hagerty took over primary vocal duties, running through Deafer Than Blind and Let’s Get Lost. Herrema asked the lights to be lowered and as the stage turned azul, the band went into Blue Is The Frequency. Hagerty and Herrema finally started to gel on Morphic Resident, then a great version of one of the band’s most sentimental songs, Back To School, provided a true highlight to the evening, only to fall back to pieces with especially unfocused versions of Junkie Nurse and Banana Question.
Hagerty took the reins again, ending with the complex Inside Game, and despite everyone in the audience chanting for an encore, Herrema left the stage while Hagerty unplugged and started packing up.
While Drag City has hinted at this being the first of more shows to come, the band didn’t seem to display that intent. If this was a testing of the waters, it might still be too toxic to take a swim. And yet, somehow, Trux fans still want more.
Words and photos by Nolan Gawron