Mike Watt's Engine Room Still Firing Up Audiences

His traveling punk-rock opera is drawing to a close but has plenty of steam to let off.

NEW YORK -- Minutemen co-founder Mike Watt always made it a point to tear down any and all barriers between performer and audience. As his entrance at New York City's Knitting Factory on Friday night made clear, he's still at it.

With a packed crowd in the house and his Black Gang cohorts -- guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Bob Lee -- all set up onstage, plugged in and ready to go, Watt was nowhere to be seen.

As the clock hit 11, a scruffy figure impatiently pushed his way forward. He could've passed for a panhandler stumbling in off the streets of the surrounding Lower East Side, what with the garbage bag he was toting, his scruffy, unkempt beard, tattered jeans and aged flannel shirt.

But when Watt -- the seeming ragamuffin -- jumped onstage, picked up the bass and quickly burst into the opening riffs of "In the Engine Room," the lead-off track from his 1997 punk-rock opera, Contemplating the Engine Room, the room was electrified.

Watt's facial expression, though, suddenly changed from intense to intensely pissed off. After the opener, he harangued the soundman and had the wobbly mic-stand replaced. From that point on, Watt and the Black Gang returned to the punk opera, sweating but not stopping until its end more than an hour later.

"Amazing energy," Christine Ann Lobasso, 26, of Greenlawn, N.Y., commented. "You need a compass and a map to comprehend some of it, but Mike Watt manages to pull you into his strange world."

Engine Room, a rare, punk-rock concept album, is a 15-track song-cycle purporting to trace 24 hours in the lives of three men in the engine room of a large naval vessel. Ostensibly inspired by Watt's dad's 20-year Navy career, in truth it represents Watt's finally coming to terms with the 1985 death of singer/guitarist D. Boon, his childhood friend and the co-founder with Watt of the legendary '80s punk outfit the Minutemen.

To pay tribute to Boon, Watt couldn't have made a better choice than Geraldine Fibbers' guitar-thrasher Cline, who's on Engine Room and in the Black Gang.

With his arsenal of guitar effects, Cline consistently amazed the crowd with his histrionics, reminiscent of seminal first-wave art-punk Television's Tom Verlaine or hard-rocking Living Colour guitarist/songwriter Vernon Reid.

The set's topper was undoubtedly "Liberty Calls!;" the dreamy

quality of the recorded version was forsaken in concert for fierce interplay

among the musicians. Cline cut loose for a five-minute guitar-freakout mid-song, rubbing kitchen utensils over the strings and firing a toy gun over the guitar's pickup to create a variety of effects.

Other highlights, all of them from Engine Room, included the raging, punk-rock stomper "The Bluejackets' Manual," the bouncy funk of "Black Gang Coffee" and "The Boilerman," which recounted Watt's initial meeting with Boon all those years ago and featured another great guitar-solo by Cline.

The crowd at the Knitting Factory was much livelier than at Watt's last New York-area appearance -- July 19 at the Mercury Lounge -- and the band rewarded the adoring throng with an extended encore of cover songs.

On "The Red and the Black" by metal-pop band Blue Oyster Cult -- and covered previously by both the Minutemen and another of Watts' bands, the fabulous fIREHOSE -- Lee got to cut loose on drums. The evening's opening band, Scrawl, joined in the onstage fun.

Other covers included a rendition of Television's "Friction," Roky Erickson's "I Have Always Been Here Before" and an incendiary version of the Minutemen nugget "One Reporter's Opinion."

Although Watt joked that he hadn't taken his daily nap that afternoon, the effects were never visible. The crowd left drained and euphoric from the punky energy of the two-hour set.

"Well worth the $13," said Adam Krieg, 21, of Brooklyn, N.Y.