Candy corn

Or: What do cake walks, the Backstreet Boys, and Jon Cunningham have in common?

Irony doesn't seem to exist for Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham when he's onstage, in the moment, looking like he just got back from a photo shoot for Styx's Grand Illusion as he dramatically delivers his silly songs about Gary Busey and bananas. Imagine Tommy Shaw with an accordion and "Weird Al" Yankovic's cellular phone number. It may all be a joke, but Cunningham never gets to the punchline, never lets on that he's been in on it from the beginning. Each song is offered up with a straight face, whether they be Mötley Crüe hits and Bon Jovi misses, or odes to Sportatorium heroes and teenage girlfriends named Angel. But it's not all an act: Cunningham doesn't play the hair-metal hits because they're easy targets. He does it because he likes the songs.

No surprise, then, that Cunningham would be drawn to the wave of disposable pop that new kids on the block such as 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys and surgically augmented kewpie doll Britney Spears are riding into bank lobbies across the country. If you think about it, Bon Jovi's "Always," a frequent visitor to Corn Mo sets, isn't all that different from the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way" -- different haircuts, same result. And "Mutt" Lange, better known as Mr. Shania Twain, even produced a few tracks on the Backstreets' new Millennium, just as he once did for Def Leppard. Cunningham raves about those bands, as well as MTV's Total Request Live, the video countdown show that Spears and company rule with a candy-coated fist.

"I've been listening to a lot of pop lately," Cunningham says, taking a break from his telemarketing job. "I think pop's getting real good. The guy -- I think his name is Martin or something [manager Max Martin] -- who writes all the songs for 'N Sync and Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys...all those songs are just so good. They're over the top, but they're, like, pushed beyond over the top. It's almost like when you go to the movies, and that music that plays right before the movie starts, like an ad for THX or something. It's like songs based around those kinds of things, where it tries to pump you up so much."

John Freeman (in gorilla suit, with Dave Wallin) and Jon Cunningham (in scarf, with Ian Bjornstadt) go pop, pop, pop!
John Freeman (in gorilla suit, with Dave Wallin) and Jon Cunningham (in scarf, with Ian Bjornstadt) go pop, pop, pop!
Pops Carter is Dentonís Rhythm Man, baby.

Cunningham's newfound love for pop has already edged its way into his set lists. The only metal found on songs such as "Gary Busey Boy" (a track off the forthcoming Corn Mo/.357 Lover album, Diorama of the Golden Lion, due later this summer) is the kind found in the gutters of Tin Pan Alley. And on June 19, at Bonanzaganza -- a Good/Bad Art Collective benefit featuring performances by Cunningham and cohort John Freeman's solo act Dutch Treats -- he will unveil his latest cover, the Backstreet Boys anthem, "Backstreet's Back." In keeping with the spirit of the original, Cunningham says he will be joined onstage by a couple of 9-year-old boys, dancing along with the song. The pop doesn't stop there, though: The Dooms U.K. (the band Cunningham is in with Freeman, among many others) is working up a rendition of Ricky Martin's unfortunately ubiquitous hit, "Livin' La Vida Loca" -- a fairly straight version, no less.

"Oh, yeah," Cunningham says, as though the idea of tampering with Martin's song would be unthinkable. "I may try to do a Will Smith song too. Maybe "Miami" [from Smith's 1997 album Big Willie Style]." The Dooms were set to unveil "Livin' La Vida Loca" on June 3 at the Liquid Lounge, capping off the first edition of Cunningham's every-Thursday-in-June series of "Children of the Corn Mo" nights, but held off. It wasn't because the song wouldn't fit the format; there wasn't one to begin with. The "Children of the Corn Mo" shows -- suggested by Liquid Lounge booking agent Dale Brock, and put together by Cunningham -- feature an eclectic assortment of bands. Most include either Cunningham (Corn Mo and .357 Lover, the rock version of Cunningham's solo shows that features members of Baboon and Q and the Black Martin) or Freeman (Dutch Treats and Telethon, the latter a "German techno kind of band," according to Freeman) or both (Dooms, Golden Vipers, Rocky Horror Rock Band).

It doesn't much matter which act happens to be onstage -- it's all Cunningham and Freeman's show. The highlight of the June 3 installment came halfway through Corn Mo's set, when Freeman joined Cunningham for a rousing version of Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike," a song from 1991's Pearl Jam-Soundgarden one-off collaboration, with Freeman growling his way through his best Eddie Vedder impersonation. All that was missing were a thousand drunk, shirtless frat boys. "That's a big crowd-pleaser, definitely," Freeman says. "It's a sure-fire hit. If there's any problems with the show, we do that one and everything is OK." The series ends on June 17, with sets by Rocky Horror Rock Band (consisting of Freeman, Cunningham, ex-UFOFU guitarist Joe Butcher, Daron Beck on keyboards, Dooms guitarist James Henderson, and Floor 13 drummer Duncan Black) and Golden Vipers, Cunningham's and Freeman's "soft glam" outfit with Beck. Cunningham says he expects to continue the shows in the future, after he and Freeman return from an extended trip to take part in the Good/Bad New York satellite's first show, Joey on I.C.U., July 2 at ABC No Rio.

Resuming the series would be in Freeman and Cunningham's best interest. "The Children of the Corn Mo" shows seem to be the best way for the duo to showcase their countless alternate identities, a list that gets longer every time one of them has some free time. Practically every other band in the Dallas-Denton area has something to do with one or the other.

Freeman is especially prolific: Starting a new band seems to have become part of his daily routine. One of the bands, The Meat Helmets, which counts The Darlingtons' bassist Angelique Congleton and Beck among its ranks, will make its recorded debut sometime this summer. The band recently spent a weekend in a studio finishing up tracks for its first album, but Freeman isn't sure when it will come out. Both he and Cunningham are too busy with preparations for their trip to New York to worry about anything else. That is, except for the parts they're playing in the Good/Bad show: robots.

"There's a lot of different stuff going on with it," Freeman says. "The whole thing is set up like a museum of natural history, like a fake history that Good/Bad made up. One part of it is this tribe of Indians that worship Rondo, that old citrus drink from the '70s; they're called the Rondo Indians. At the end of it, people will go into this little basement area, and Jon and I will be standing there like animatronic figures. You know, 'If you want to know more about the Rondo Indians, press this button.' And when they press it, I'll play a song I wrote about Rondo Indians." He laughs. "It's pretty cool."

Before Freeman and Cunningham can sing any songs about imaginary Rondo Indians, they have to raise enough money to get to New York. That's why the pair has put together Bonanzaganza, a benefit concert that isn't really a concert, but more like a musical carnival hosted by Tim Burton. More than 50 different shows will take place, from musical performances to magic workshops to puppet theater to God knows what else. If all goes according to plan, the nickels and dimes and quarters that each event will charge for admission should be more than enough to allow Cunningham and Freeman to leave on a jet plane.

"Tentatively, there's going to be 50-cent shows and 75-cent shows," Cunningham says. "The 50-cent shows are going to be booked as duds, and the 75-cent shows are going to be booked as high-quality entertainment. And there'll be a cake walk with cakes made by real artists with rock celebrity autographs on the cakes. And an artist teaching spin art. You know when you go to a carnival and they give you a fishing pole? You cast it over this board, and someone on the other the side puts a grab bag on the end of your string and tugs on it, and you get whatever's in the grab bag. That's going to be there. It's pretty much a grab bag show."

With Cunningham and Freeman, it always is.

"Children of the Corn Mo" happens June 17 at Liquid Lounge, with performances by Corn Mo, Rocky Horror Rock Band, and Golden Vipers. Bonanzaganza takes place June 19 at Good/Bad Art Collective, 120 Exposition in Denton.

Pops go the Funkmonsters

Eighty-year-old bluesman Pops Carter may even be more of a fixture around Denton than John Freeman and Jon Cunningham -- if that's even remotely possible -- hopping from bar to bar around the University of North Texas campus for the past 30 years. Everyone, it seems, has a Pops Carter story, some of them actually involving his music.

However, most of the anecdotes take place in the dimly lit bars near the intersection of Fry and Hickory streets-in meat markets such as Cool Beans or Lucky Lou's, where Pops sightings are as frequent as bad pickup lines. Since the charismatic Carter and his wife Minnie Lee (a cousin of the legendary Lightnin' Hopkins) moved to Denton in 1969, after a construction job led Pops north from Houston, he has found a second home in the area's clubs. Almost every night, he can be found prowling about, sitting in with other bands and leading his own. Most notable of the bands Pops has been associated with is the outfit he's played in for almost a decade, the Funkmonsters, rounded out by guitarist Chris Tracey, bassist Clarence Pitts, and drummers Jesse Hall and Jeremy Bruch. Late last year, U.R.O.K. Records released the Funkmonsters' Rhythm Man, a six-track EP designed as a taster for an album due later this year. Rhythm Man is a fair introduction to Carter's music, mixing into the stew everything from jump blues to hip-hop drumbeats, aided and abetted by guest musicians such as guitarist Texas Slim and Brave Combo's Jeffrey Barnes on harmonica and saxophone. But it misses the point a bit -- Pops is best heard onstage, not on a record.

Carter says the new album, his first-ever full-length, will come out when the rest of the band comes back to Denton "and settles down." (Tracey is currently in Sweden, working on cancer research. Not exactly what we'd call wild times.) In the meantime, Carter soldiers on, continuing to play shows, including his recent annual birthday celebration gig at Dan's Bar on June 6. The band is also scheduled to perform a free concert on June 19 at Denton's Fred Moore Park. The years of secondhand smoke and firsthand experience with everything else have played hell on Carter's pipes; his gravel growl makes any conversation with him a strictly one-way affair. But it must keep him young: Pops has been singing the blues for 65 years. God, you think they'd have cleared up by now.

Go Metric, young man

The ad for the show at Trees on June 4 listed Go Metric USA among the bands scheduled to perform, but the group that took the stage wasn't Go Metric. Well, not quite. The band's singer-guitarist Mitch Greer and drummer T.J. Prendergast were in attendance, but bassist Lindsay Romig and guitarist Michael Cullen were nowhere to be found. (Romig was in Italy; Cullen was in, uh, Coppell, apparently.) Greer and Prendergast played a few songs that weren't Go Metric songs, with a few musicians that aren't members of Go Metric, including Rachel Smith and G.P. Cole of Transona Five, Eric Almendal (My Friend the Atom), and Julie Harper (Groupius).

When reached by phone, Greer declined to comment on the status of the band. He did say that he has a number of projects in the works. (One is rumored to be a lounge-hop side band, The Licketts, featuring Transona Five's Smith.) Greer added that Go Metric -- in some form -- is returning to the studio in the near future to record an album slated for release in July or August. And, contrary to what was reported here a few months ago, the band has not and will not sign with Interscope-Geffen Records. The label that will release the follow-up to last year's for-the-Byrds debut, Three Chords By Two Verses, has yet to be determined.

I'm Rubber, you're glue...

After months of false starts, the long-awaited renovations at Denton's Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios ("Build it, and they will indie-rock," February 11) are finally underway, according to Rubber Gloves' co-owner Josh Baish. Construction began last week, starting with the installation of new doorways on the side and at the back of the performance area. Plans call for new bathrooms, an enlarged stage, a 103-space parking lot, and a bar, among other improvements. Initially, Baish expected the renovations to be completed by March 31, but they were held up until Baish's partners, Memory and Jason Wortham, moved off the premises; the new bar will be located in the Worthams' former apartment.

"I'm not holding my breath, but [it should be finished] by the end of July or the first week of August," Rubbergloves' Baish says. "I'm just happy to see stuff happening." Baish is also negotiating to buy the building Rubber Gloves is located in, with the help of Jason Wortham's mother, a real estate agent. In the meantime, Rubber Gloves will continue hosting shows, including a performance by The Tight Bro's From Way Back When and the Dooms U.K. on June 18.

Scene, Heard

On the heels of the recent Stumptone full-length, Dave Willingham and Philip Croley's Two Ohm Hop label has several releases on the way in the coming months. Tentatively scheduled are albums by Sub Oslo and Mandarin -- the latter featuring Rubber Gloves' Jason Wortham on guitar and vocals -- and a Light Bright Highway split-release with poster artist Frank Kozik's Man's Ruin Records. An EP by Captain Audio is also reportedly in the works, due out this fall...

Former Grown-Ups trombone player Daniel Spencer shows up on a pair of new discs this week, Seltzer 3 and Seltzer Karaoke, both out on Forefront Records. Now playing with Christian ska band The O.C. Supertones, Spencer appears on the track "One Voice," included on each compilation in different forms, one of which is an instrumental-karaoke version. The song is a cut from the band's album Chase the Sun, released earlier this year on indie B.E.C. Recordings...

Plagued by a series of delays, Chomsky's self-titled debut will finally hit stores in early July. To celebrate, the band -- singer-guitarist Sean Halleck, bassist James Driscoll, guitarist Glen Reynolds, and drummer Matt Kellum -- will host a CD release party July 10 at Trees. The Commercials and Baboon (who also just released a fine new disc, We Sing and Play) will open...

Speaking of The Commercials, The Band Formerly Known as Bobgoblin may have to part ways with its current moniker as well. Seems another group has called dibs and is threatening the usual lawsuits unless The Commercials change names, yet again. A few alternatives have already been tossed around, including Jet, the title of Bobgoblin's 1994 debut. (Confused yet?) Commercials' drummer Rob Avsharian joked a couple of weeks ago that changing names every few months "could be our new gimmick." Maybe it's just us, but we still like the old Black Market Party idea.

Send Street Beat your congratulations to zcrain@dallasobserver.com.

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