I had originally started this review with a cute anecdote. It’s kind of my thing, and everybody else’s. But I’m going to cut straight to it. This was fucking insane. Oh. Was my use of fuck in the fourth sentence a bit too much for you? Then why in a flying fuck would you be reading a review of Andy Frasco and The U.N.? I ask again, why in a flying fuck? Keeping you from feeling comfortable comes as easy to Andy and his band as it does to a leather couch on a humid day. So, don’t come to me looking for a run of the mill review of a run of the mill show. Andy Frasco and The U.N. probably have never even been to a mill. Or a fucking mill, for that matter.
I tuned in a few minutes early to AFUN’s show from Cervantes in Denver. I’m calling them AFUN now. Deal. Despite watching tons of streaming and archived shows over the past 6 months, I am still getting grounded in the newest interpretations of live music. Nothing seems to create balance for me, so to avoid the pitfalls of the internet compounding my COVID-social-fog, I thought a couple of extra minutes to sort out tech problems were in order. Rather than website and microbrewed beer commercials, I was greeted with a montage of highlights from Andy’s “Shitshow” streaming production he has hosted weekly through COVID. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not sure where to begin. So, I won’t. On to the show!
“Change of Pace” couldn’t more accurately describe this virtual experience, even relative to the live streams that are becoming more readily available from all of your favorite jambands, so it was a fitting opener as well. This concert experience was far from singularly faceted. There were multiple interactive websites to experience. One such page was the real-time polling that kept popping up on the screen with percentages. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing the first-time answers about Japanese game shows, puppies and orgasm faces popped up. I did ascertain that they were not related. And then on cue, there they were. Dancing in split screens, complimenting the blues-rock solo of Ernie Chang on sax- puppies on their back legs, pining for the camera’s attention. And when Andy took the music down in a way that a true band leader can, he brought it home with the split screen of orgasm faces.
Does my review seem sporadic? Perhaps missing a few details? And yet, the details included have you simultaneously frustrated and craving more. Welcome to an AFUN show motherfucker.
The band's comradery led to unspoken musical changes. As Shawn Eckels tuned his guitar, Ernie and Andy drove the band into ‘Love Is A Waiting Game”. This song, like so many of Frasco’s, mixes subtle phrases about popular culture with self-depreciation and a shrugging emoji. “Wake up from your cell phone,” “hate me when you're lonely.” He is the consummate observer struggling to figure out what comes next.
The choose-your-own-adventure options for fans to vote on (I’ve got it figured out now!) told the band to go into a cover. Eckels stopped the band on a dime before they crushed Nirvana's “Breed'' with the obligatory Frasco jerking off the visual spectacle, this time on Eckel’s guitar neck, before the band launched back into “Waiting Game”.
I was starting to feel like I was in a biker bar. Everyone seemed nice, but I was still kind of scared. “Mature as Fuck” came next and the livestream had already become a visual overload; cuts to multiple cameras, the polls, and spliced in zoom feeds from the loyalist of fans. But Frasco conducted it all. Even when there were hiccups and the band didn’t really know they were live, it made for entertaining streaming. Next up? A dance-off degenerating into a wrestling match and whipping. Even writing this, I can’t see the connection between what was going on. But for AFUN, directionless is a direction.
“Lie to me” was the most traditional approach to straight-ahead music to this point in the show. But unlike a Phish rip-cord song, this is no excuse to hit the head. Instead, the band invited local Denver violinist Becca Bisque onstage, per the fan voting, to solo through this minor key. Becca did not disappoint, sounding like the Devil leading her band of Demons. But clearly Frasco was the dark lord on this one. After Bauer’s first solo, he conducted the band into a frenetic double time finish to the song, going from conducting all over the stage to playing his instrument with carnal anger.
“Love Come Down” felt like another straight-ahead tune until the poll showed that the crowd wanted Andy to “eat mushrooms right now.” While everything that Frasco imbibed through the show was legal in the city limits of Denver, there is no question that the fan polls caused him to be treated like a crash test dummy for psilocybin. See everybody, you can only barely finish a show on that many substances.
Another guest came to the stage, this time Nick Gurlach, a member of Frasco’s news team from The Shitshow news team, to create a dueling sax section on “Find A Way”. In songs like this, when Frasco is dancing around the stage, it is clear that the musical direction can seamlessly be passed to Eckels when Frasco needs to curate the scene.
“Let Your Mind Be Free” slowed it down while the mushrooms were kicking in for Frasco. In this self-diagnostic rocker, Andy seems to be singing about an issue that is woven into all of his other demons and darkness; what is my place in this world and how does it relate to your place in the world? Never to be too heady for too long, the band jettisoned into their own tale of all-night Cocaine use (“Addicted to You”), then into a choose your own adventure led tease of “Cocaine” by J.J. Cale.
“Addicted To You” led to multiple sit-ins. Sax again, percussion (Jeremy Salken from Big Gigantic), violin again, and Eddie Roberts on guitar from New Mastersounds. There are so many things from this concert to simply report on- hey look there goes a fan dressed as a panda. How can I even review this? I’m overloaded. Then I realized that when musical quality is this high, it lets you fall into a place of comfort and see the spectacle. A new drummer, a stream of kid dancing WAY too close to the camera, is that Frasco’s drummer on guitar? AHHH! My head exploded. But I couldn’t stop because Fraso had returned to his role conducting. It's like when you introduce your friends from home to your friends from college. It seems like nobody is going to get anybody else. Americana, Jazz, and jam players all sitting in at once- but Frasco forced the issue. He made it work. The sound was layered; varied and conscious of all of its parts, and always high energy. Again, I think of Eckel’s days leading Speakeasy and know how much he loved to have as many people on stage as it would hold. Or the one time I saw Parliament-Funkadelic. It seemed that there were more people onstage than the music needed, yet they all played a role in what I was hearing. This was as much a carefully curated party as a concert.
The next poll got us “Ramble On”, a Led Zeppelin cover, led by Eckels. It was a rendition that would make Page and Plant both happy, with Shawn playing both of their parts.
Next up? A parody of “Truckin’”. Think you can guess the name? Well if “Fuckin’” makes you uncomfortable do yourself a favor and skip the U.N.’s lyrical stylings on this one.
The party began to overtake the concert during “The Walk”. Despite a heated sax and guitar battle, the onstage entertainment was mainly focused on the wrestling match between Frasco and the new butt of all jokes, Floyd Kellogg on bass and we had only just arrived at set break.
The second frame started with a straight-ahead version of “Can’t Force Love”. But music without spectacle was not going to last at this point in the evening. This was an Andy Frasco show, for fuck’s sake! A full band dance party during “It’s Been A Struggle” was spliced in with video of softcore porn. AFUN knew that with these polls, they were exposing fans’ darkest desires to see the chaos unfold with images of sex and puppies. For those of you keeping score at home, that last sentence was as disturbing to write as it was to read.
But softcore porn wasn’t the only thing finding its way into the second set. Ripping solos were spliced in too. Can we give it up for Becca Barnes? Every time she was asked to join the band on stage, she was thrust into a spotlight solo and stepped right into it, no questions asked. Next, dueling guitar solos coming from two completely different worlds, as Eddie from the New Mastersounds delved into the sound curated by Shawn Ecekls. Meanwhile, Andy was blending the characters from his sketches on the “Shitshow” with his live performance, further blurring the end of caricature and the beginning of the artist. Perhaps that is the art.
Straight improvised twelve-bar blues lead into instrument switching. I’m not sure if these guys have any speed other than breakneck. As the band seamlessly picked up instrument after instrument, too many total switches to describe, the music barely suffered. Truly Andy Avila, who is typically on drums in the U.N., stole this part of the show; shining on drums, keys lead guitar and vocals- all on one song.
The nights only unannounced sit-in came when Isaac Teel, drummer from TAUK, sang Stevie Wonder alongside Avila. The onstage party of P-Funk was no longer the best comparison. I was beginning to see hints of Zappa with The Mothers of Invention. While my viewing of those giants is limited to what youtube has to offer, it seems that they were never daunted by going in countless new directions every night. So why not have a scat off?
A digital short by Floyd Kellogg, part Andy Samberg, and part Tenacious D, was followed by “Make It Work”. In this song’s lyrics, Frasco blends messages of sex, hope, and depression-like oil and water. He can stir them together over and over, no matter how many times they separate.
Oh yes, and don’t forget drugs, the consummate muse for the band. AFUN sauntered into the catchy “Smokin’ Dope and Rock and Roll” before dusting off a couple of AFUN oldies. Frasco shoved the band into“Here’s To Letting You Down” showing that he has been aware of his demons for years, and has been partying with them all this time.
The Jameson, weed, psilocybin, beer bongs, and CBD were just as much a leader of the band now as Frasco himself in the home stretch. But just when you thought maybe things had gone off the rails or maybe were a result of them, Andy the conductor rose up from the ashes and led the band through an epic sax battle. Sure, he wasn’t playing, but he was asking of the players and they were responding. The evening had boiled down to the strength of the simple relationships on stage.
But yeah, then the rails seemed to be gone. Frasco gave all he had during “I Found Myself” only to, ironically, have given himself to his addictions for the night.
The last few songs of the night were littered with Frasco’s characteristic statements of philosophy on life, Covid, drugs, and happiness. He continued to blend his James Brown-like demands on his band calling up 2, 3 and 5 hits during solos. He toasted us. He toasted the mushrooms. After finishing the set, the band came back for the ultimate juxtaposed ironic encore. While the extra frame started out with “Stop Fucking Around”, giving the audience the thought that maybe Frasco was seeing the light, AFUN then left us with Eckels belting out the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” After Frasco panted Floyd, I actually thought this encore was more of an admission of what was to come than anything else.
Thinking back over the past months, and even the months before Covid, Frasco has been on a journey for all to see and hear. He has told us over and over that he has struggled; sex, drugs, self-image, self-worth, and multiple ways to rephrase the big one- depression. He has made it no secret that the next two months he is hoping to distance himself from these demons by distancing himself from how he has connected with us. We won’t see into his Shitshow or hear how to Save the World through his podcast. So, this night, with all of its antics and intentional attention-stealing diversions, served as the culmination of what the past months have been building towards. Overloading on all of those demons is how Frasco kept his eye on them tonight. Maybe that's why I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.