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Live: Spacehog's Spinal Tap Moment

Transplanted Brit-rockers turn on the glam at club gig.

NEW YORK -- Toward the end of their set Friday night, Spacehog had a brief but beautiful "Spinal Tap" moment.

Like what so often happened to the mishap-plagued, fictional English rock band of movie fame, Spacehog became the victims of overly ambitious pyrotechnics. Seems a roadie couldn't quite get Spacehog's Chinese gong to burst into flames on cue that night at the Westbeth Theater Center.

By the time he finally got it ignited, drummer Jonny Cragg turned to pound it too late for the big rock 'n' roll finale.

While the moment seemed as unintentional and pathetic as it had seemed for characters in director Rob Reiner's "Spinal Tap" flick, it served only to endear the modern-day glam-styled rockers to their fans during the show in their adopted hometown. Performing a sold-out gig at the Westbeth, just across town from the East Village neighborhood that gave Spacehog their start, this performance was the third in a three-week mini-tour leading up to the release of their second album, The Chinese Album (Mar. 10).

Many of their old friends made it, filling every nook in the intimate performance space more suited to Sandra Bernhard's stand-up comedy or Mary Lou Lord's acoustic vocalizations than to a full blown rock act. If its legal capacity was 500, Westbeth had at least that many stuffed within its black-curtained walls. Spacehog opened their set with "Goodbye Violet Race" (RealAudio excerpt), one of six tunes they did from their upcoming release. Tim Neilson, a fan from Manhattan, said it wasn't one of his favorites from the new CD. He prefers two other new tunes they played, "Carry On" and "Anonymous," and could just as easily have settled for "2nd Avenue (Isle of Manhattan)" and "Almond Kisses," two other songs that they left off the setlist but that appear on the new release, he added. "I found [a promo copy] at a used record store for $4," Neilson said.

And while only time will tell, judging from the giant picture of a Chinese girl on the wall behind the band, the paper lanterns scattered about the stage and the gong that hung behind drummer Cragg, it would seem that the album will bear a Chinese motif to go along with the band's trademark logo, that wonderful helmeted pig that also graced the cover of Resident Alien, Spacehog's 1995 debut.

Yet despite the overwhelming number of images from the Orient, there was nothing Eastern about the new tunes Spacehog performed that night. Mixing a little David Bowie with a pinch of the London Suede and all the pomp of the '70s, the band offered a taste of the straight-ahead rock of the new album's first single, "Mungo City" (RealAudio excerpt), and cranked up the blues on "Captain Freeman."

Lead vocalist Royston Langdon was in fine form, sporting a two-week beard, his hair in a tangle. On the left of the small stage, his brother Antony Langdon helped with backing vocals, guitars and banter. On the right, Richard Steel stayed mostly out of the footlights to pull out his leads, leaving the focus on the brothers. The keyboard that Royston used for the new tune "Lucy's Shoe" was perched near the rear corner of the stage, a few feet from the edge.

And while Neilson was partial to the glam-rock sounds of "Carry On," he wondered why Spacehog didn't slow things down a little for "2nd Avenue" or "Almond Kisses," the album version of which features guest vocals from R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. "I dunno," Neilson said, looking around the room for any sign of the Athens, Ga., icon. "I heard that Bowie and Trent Reznor were at [Spacehog's] Wetlands gig last year."

Spacehog showed that they are more than a one-dimensional ensemble. In one breath, they can kick up a jam and, in the next, turn around and make a song such as "Anonymous" sound like a Johnny Cash two-step, with a sense of irony worthy of alterna-punks the Replacements. Its rockabilly beat slowing to a crawl, the tune finally wound down like a music box.

"They do things and it doesn't matter whether it sounds cheesy," said

a fan who went by the name Nadia and who, like the band, is an English

transplant to New York's East Village. It was at a party she threw at an obscure dive bar in the Bowery in early 1994, she said, that Spacehog got their start. "I've always believed in them," she said. "They don't take themselves too seriously. They're cheeky." [Tues., Feb. 24, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]