New York City is a tried and true proving ground for young musical talent because as old blue eyes put it “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere,” and Playboy Manbaby made it. From being a highlight performance on a solid Tuesday night, to opening for New York Punk legend Stza Crack two Sunday’s later, to laying waste to a local garage rock festival the following Friday, Playboy Manbaby proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are way more than a Phoenix thing.
As someone who spent a lot of ink and megabytes writing about Playboy Manbaby’s transcendent musical presence back when I was a Phoenician, I don’t think there could be anything more reaffirming than seeing them tour through New York City and he-bitch-man-slap the Big Apple with a huge dose of space-cadet thunder-punk.
Their trio of New York City shows was played to as disparate crowds as could be. But, by the end of each set they had won over even the staunchest genre buffs, and this was not the stalwart Manbaby A-Squad. This was the touring act featuring the world’s greatest frontman Robbie Pfeffer and psychotic saxophone player Austin Rickert as the only representatives of the core group, along with a good, game, and giving group of touring members in drummer Ryan Bakalaka, guitarist Tom Houser, and bass player Chad Cole who all added their own flair to Playboy dynamic.
Their first show in the city that never sleeps was at Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s, renowned heavy metal club St. Vitus Bar along with Rails, SMOCK, Ted’s Dead, and Gnarcisisits. It was a Tuesday night show in the old school Polish Neighborhood and Playboy had rolled in early. They were down a lead guitarist due to illness as TJ Figa found himself feeling too sick to travel and they weren’t going to meet up with Houser for a few more days to finish up the tour.
While some bands may have spent that pre-show time frantically practicing to play man down Playboy Manbaby was in the streets outside the venue shooting an Instagram video to promote their upcoming show with Hotsnakes two days later … and then they went and did what they do best, acted like 4 grownup assholes on stage, but in a good way.
Rails opened the show in what was one of their first ever live performances and even though they were a fresh crew the southern tinged rock n roll band put on a great show. With a membership that hails from both New York City and Austin, TX it’s been hard for the group to get together. But now that they are with wild man lead singer Tony Prins of Savants at the helm, there is no doubt they will make some waves in New York City soon.
Even without a lead guitarist Playboy Manbaby is one of the singularly most electric bands on planet Earth. I attended the show with a good friend who was unimpressed by Playboy’s recordings and after the set looked at me and said “that lead singer is a force of nature,” in regards to Pfeffer and showered praised upon Rickert as well.
I would never say that they are as good without guitar, but with a tailor-made set to highlight the bass playing of Cole in tunes like “Populist Politics,” “Strange Plastic Surgery,” “The Bottom Line” they were able to do a more than a serviceable job with their set and entice all the wallflowers out in the bar to enter the backside black box theater and get down with Playboy at the end of “Falafel Pantyhose.” They were also a big enough draw to bring out downtown Phoenix ex-pat’s Hattie Jean Hayes and Matt Storrs who are now living out their New York City dreams.
Something else I learned about Playboy Manbaby that night, besides the fact that Robbie Pfeffer would probably still be entertaining singing against a pre-recorded background track on a child’s karaoke machine, is that they take sandwiches very seriously. Between the four-piece (mostly Austin) they must have eaten 12 New York deli sandwiches.
The band wound up crashing at my place after the show and we parted ways in the morning until their upcoming Brooklyn Bazaar show with Scott Sturgeon and The Crack Rock Steady 7 two Sunday’s later. Part of the band was sticking around in New York City while Pfeffer and Cole were flying back to Phoenix for Hotsnakes at Crescent and The Foster Family Band album release respectively.
The next time we would meet Pfeffer was back from Phoenix with Houser, but Cole was still in Phoenix so once again Playboy Manbaby was playing man down in a huge room with probably the biggest act they’d open for this tour. Did Playboy cower and fold? No, of course not. They went to a deli and got some sandwiches and talked about a funny bit they could do for the show.
Upon entering the darkened Brooklyn Bazaar upstairs ballroom and seeing the old school New York punk and hardcore crowd the band decided to postpone the bit until the upcoming Pizza Fest show. Eve Minor was the evening’s opener and she erred more toward the ska/reggae side of Crack Rock Steady. While Joey Steel and his band of lunatics All Torn Up Played second.
Steel is one the most intense lead singers in New York and besides being known for always being turned up to 11 he is also known for going off on anti-capitalist diatribes in the middle of his shows. He delivered with the high intensity orating and ear-splitting howls on a night that was significant for him for being the night ATU returned to the stage after several months on hiatus.
As disappointed as I was that the mighty Playboy Manbaby felt too intimidated to push forward with their trademark antics, it was all the more gratifying when they won over the crowd and had the room full of black-clad crust punks getting into the grooves.
For the show, Houser jumped between bass and guitar showing some bursts of brilliant energy but seemingly kept a little off balance by the double duty, and the band pushed forward with the sarcastic Pfeffer on the mic. He regaled the audience with his snarky love of capitalism and got a few giggles out of the seemingly serious crowd.
Playboy Manbaby’s sound may not fall in line with group’s like All Torn Up, but their sharp social and political wit and extraordinarily high energy shows can stand up toe to toe with any band out there and it went pretty well in line with the headlining Crack Rock Steady 7 which featured OG Leftover Crack members Alec Bailie and Shane.
Following the show, the band stuck around to kick it with Stza and Shane, as well as the show’s promoter Robert Johnson of Scenic Presents in the dingy green room area of Brooklyn Bazaar. Scotch was drunk and the group, all fans of the Crack Rock Steady Beat stood for a picture with the Crack Daddy.
After the Crack Rock Steady show, it was an immediate jaunt over to New Brunswick New Jersey for their following evening’s gig and to prepare for their final dance in New York City the following Friday in Williamsburg at Pizza Fest.
When Pizza Fest finally rolled around Playboy Manbaby was finally a complete unit and they were all fired up to give New York City one last visceral assault on its sense of good taste. Although Playboy Manbaby was thousands of miles from home, Pizza Fest was still just about the most familiar show that they could have played.
Phoenix music scenesters will long remember the reign of Rubber Brother Records — the short period in Phoenix music history when a small cassette tape label opened up shop and completely dominated the happenings of local music for months. Pizza Fest is a product of King Pizza Records, a label in the same vein as Rubber Brother that has grown a loyal and dedicated following through good business practices and genuine willingness to accept all comers.
Playboy Manbaby had played a few King Pizza shows on their last trip to New York City and while none of those were as well attended as Pizza Fest, the group had begun to create a small word of mouth hum around the scene. There was this rumor an incredible funk punk band rocked a few shows with The Mad Doctors, but no one was sure if the tales of their power were rumor and innuendo or based in fact.
With that small cult following spreading the gospel of Playboy Manbaby, Pfeffer, Rickert, and their group of misfit toys rode into The Gutter Bar like conquering heroes. They unleashed the bit they had created for the show with Stza coming onto the stage dressed as a dysfunctional tourist family aghast by the magnitude of New York City. Debra, Junior, Uncle Randy, Vargas Skullfucker, and Steve got up in front of a wild and wooly packed in crowd, including Stza and Alec (due in no small part to undelivered promises of pizza from me) and gave The Gutter Bar armatz.
There were bodies strewn to the right and bodies strewn to the left and a maniacally riffing psychopath standing before the crowd in a skirt and pink tank top relentlessly assaulting them with high velocity rock ‘n roll force. I’ve seen Playboy turn a fair few venues inside out with their transcendent raw power. But, I stand here today as quite possibly the biggest Playboy Manbaby fan on Earth saying the only other place on the planet they have ever brought that level of intensity to is old Trunk Space. Pfeffer and his clan of marauders treated The Gutter with reckless indifference unleashing a barrage of outrageous punk tunes to back drop of a hundred rockers losing their minds.
Ryan Bakalaka and his precision drumming shined in the forefront of the bands single best performance of the tour and guitarist Tom Houser took center stage in a way that TJ Friga never has. No disrespect to TJ, he wrote the parts and the piece of Playboy Manbaby he represents is irreplaceable. But Tom Houser is an unstoppable entertainment juggernaut and I know that because he was only mildly overshadowed by Pfeffer and Rickert and not completely enveloped the way any other musician in that position would be.
Houser brought a truly special energy to the Manbaby dynamic, one that he wasn’t able to fully embrace until he was able to focus solely on playing guitar, and I’m sure having a hundred people eating out of the palm of his hand didn’t hurt his confidence either. Playboy worked their way through their hit list knocking out songs off their newest record Lobotomobile as well as tunes going as far back as Bummerittaville, they even worked in a couple of unreleased tunes, “I Don’t Care” and “Personal Privacy”, the latter of which exploded like a bomb at every chorus.
But then the time came, as it does at every Playboy Manbaby show for Robbie and his drummer (whether Chad B, Dennis or Bakalaka) to teach the audience how to count with their perennial closer “Mermaid Pterodactyl.” I’ve seen Pfeffer get a whole lot of different people down on the ground for the final fracus of their outro tune, but never have I seen him get two OG members of Leftover Crack to do it. But when Robbie said to get down low with him you bet your bippy that Stza and Bailie obliged.
The final righteous debauch of Playboy Manbaby’s New York leg was the stuff legends are made of. They may not have been Beyonce forever changing the landscape of Coachella, but they were quite possibly the hardest hitting band in the history of Pizza Fest.
When the guitarist and lead singer of the headlining band gets up on stage in his own hometown and proclaims that he “hates” following Playboy Manbaby that truly says something about the raw power that the Tempe, AZ spazz-punks bring to the stage. The Mad Doctors are a more than adequate surf/sludge band. They have high energy, danceable tunes, and they are three of the sweetest men I have ever met, but even the fact that the drummer of the Docs put the whole show together was not going to save them from the fact that Playboy Manbaby shut the show down.
Disclosure Statement: I am one of Playboy Manbaby’s biggest fans and over the years of fandom I have become friends with them. I also am responsible for getting them on to both the St. Vitus show and The Crack Rock Steady 7 show.