Mojo Nixon and the Toadliquors were one of the last acts to play the former Arlington Theater in Indianapolis, by then called the Ritz Music Hall or The Ritz, in May 1991 before it closed down a month later. Just as I finally had the money, freedom, transportation, and opportunity to see as many shows as I wanted, the Ritz shut its doors for reasons I never entirely understood.
Since all shows at the Ritz were all-ages and general admission, I remember waiting in a rather long line that snaked beside the building all afternoon before the evening show with my fiancé and his sister. She and I were among the few women waiting to get in, so few that there wasn’t even the customary “chicks in front” call from the doorman before the doors opened. The three of us ended up in the front row, up against the barricade.
Mojo was the opening act that night for Dread Zeppelin, which we didn’t bother hanging around to see. The band he had hastily hired over the phone in September 1990 in Austin, on the recommendation of Joe Ely, was named The Toadliquors and consisted of members of the recently defunct Neptunes who would go on to be long-standing members of his touring band: indefatigable, lanky piano player Pete Gordon, aka “Wetdawg” and drummer Mike “Wid” Middleton.
“There’s a plague on the planet / And they went to law school!” From the moment the band hit the stage and immediately slammed into ‘Destroy All Lawyers,’ from Mojo’s solo debut album ‘Otis,’ it was a full-throttle performance. Mojo didn’t let up for a second. He never stopped moving. His sleeveless plaid shirt that was completely soaked with sweat by the end of the next song, ‘Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child.’ (He wrote that song while on tour in Australia, and the original title used Kylie Minogue as the mother-to-be.) Mojo jumped and ran around the stage, bashed away at his very lived-in guitar, bantered with the audience, and repeatedly encouraged everyone to dance, right now. While not a guitar god, his slide playing on ‘Gonna Eat Them Words’ was really good, and he had enough rockabilly and surf guitar licks to help stretch the songs out to lengthy jams.
Mojo’s comedic delivery was a combination of a spirit-infused speed freak preacher, Howlin’ Wolf, and an angry George Thorogood. He had everyone shouting along to his anti-MTV anthem ‘Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin.’ Remarking on the gender imbalance of the audience he peered out and said, “How come I look out there and all I see is guys? It looks like a dingo convention!” Before playing ‘Shane’s Dentist,’ he asked the crowd, “You know this band from Ireland called The Pogues? The singer of The Pogues’ name is Shane. You know what his problem is? His ‘teefez’ are allll fucked up! This here’s a song about Shane’s teeth.” About halfway through the song he encouraged everyone to sing the only two lines while he jumped down to the front row, grabbed me and another audience member and started an impromptu jig. Heat and sweat flew off of his curly coif and clothes as a circle of us manically danced with him.
A few other moments from the performance were unforgettable. During ‘Mushroom Maniac,’ his love song to psychedelic drugs, he beat an empty water cooler bottle like a drum, imploring everyone to chant with him, “What we gotta do? Legalize it!” He kneeled down, hitting the bottle against the stage, howling “Legalize it!” He of course played his most recent hit, the controversial ‘Don Henley Must Die.’ At one point during the song it became clear that Wetdawg the piano player had slipped into ‘Desperado.’ Mojo pretended to smack him in the face in response. An inflatable, anatomically correct ‘Luv Ewe’ sheep was then brought out, which Mojo had bought at an adult bookstore in Montana during his last tour with his roots-psychobilly collaborator Skid Roper. He and the audience loudly exhorted Wetdawg to simulate sex with the inflatable sheep as suitable punishment for playing an Eagles song.
The last song of the set was his earlier hit ‘Elvis is Everywhere,’ which involved several rounds of call-and-response about The Big E’s various accomplishments through history, followed by bowing and salaaming to a large silkscreen Elvis portrait that had a slight halo around the King’s head.
The encore, after several minutes of chants of “Mo-jo!”, consisted of a cover song I can’t remember (it might have been ‘Burning Love’) and the silly but raunchy ‘Vibrator Dependent.’ Mojo often threw in old covers as encores, from artists as disparate as George Jones (‘White Lightning’) and The J. Geils Band (‘Looking for a Love’).
Mojo and his band’s performance was full of humor, bad taste, raw energy, and vaudeville-level showmanship, with a set list of truly fun songs. Despite the venue being crowded, hot, and full of young people in various states of inebriation, there were no fights or other negative incidents that I knew of. And no crowdsurfing, always a danger to those of us under 5’5! If I hadn’t had to be at work the next day, I would have gone to their next gig too. It was the perfect time to “be young, be foolish, be happy” (as Mojo quotes The Tams on ‘Positively Bodies Parking Lot’).
Thanks to Freedom Records & Films for the photos.