Armed with a handheld microphone, a handful of samples, and a Fender with a faulty strap, Alex Zhang Hungtai (aka Dirty Beaches) is a force to be reckoned with, and his Wednesday-night gig at Muddy Waters Café only served to reaffirm it. Opening the night’s festivities was Oxnard’s Catwalk, fresh off a series of supporting dates with indie rockers the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. In spite of a couple sound issues, the trio delivered a rollicking and spot-on series of speedy throwback rockers, an ideal accompaniment to the night’s main attraction.
Sans band, Hungtai made quick work of his “setup” and started jamming well before 10:30 p.m. With no mike stand to help, the singer spent the night jockeying between guitar, pedals, and vocals without much of a hitch. Set opener (and album opener) “Speedway King” felt plucked from the world of ’70s biker flicks, brimming with minimalist guitars and Hungtai’s soulful yelps, while “Sweet 17” made for a sultry romp rooted in the sounds of the Alan Vega and Martin Rev group Suicide. Later in the set, gloomy ballad “Lord Knows Best” proved to be the night’s standout and found Hungtai cruising into the audience to croon against a preprogrammed piano track. Going it alone—and succeeding so fully in the process—Hungtai’s live set feels at times like a rock show, and at other times like an experimental performance piece: jarring, shredding, and wonderfully out of place for us musically hungry S.B. showgoers.