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Tav Falco’s Panther Burns is polarizing, yet danceable

Tav Falco.png
Lucia Rossi
Tav Falco

Setting is important to Tav Falco. As he takes this phone call on a pleasant morning, he describes relaxing on the porch of a friend’s turn-of-the-last century bungalow in the hills outside Berkeley, California. He’s looking out onto a garden, and a tree filled with lemons.

He takes a moment to recall the band playing a show on July 31, 2020. Another beautiful setting, at a castle in Italy. And the last show he played before the realization set in that a disease, COVID-19, was raging across the planet.

Tav Falco’s Panther Burns is finally touring again, with a Sept. 13 date at Photo City Music Hall, 543 Atlantic Ave. Rochester’s Anonymous Willpower opens at 8 p.m.

Falco has yet to contract COVID, and is wary of it. Wary, long past the time so many other people have moved on, forgetting the more than 1 million dead Americans. “I wear two masks, gloves,” Falco says. “I’d wear a hazmat suit if I could find one in a hurry.” He quotes René Descartes: “Masked, I advance.”

Context needs to be added to Descartes. “Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life.”

That is Falco. He is a man of many masks. He reveals many details. During this 55-minute phone conversation, it seems as though 50 minutes of it are Falco speaking.

Tav Falco’s Panther Burns is something like wild roots rock, sometimes described as psychobilly, but with … style. Beyond the music, Falco talks about making films, acting in small parts in films, writing books, learning to dance the tango. He is a Roots Rock Renaissance Man, easily dropping words such as “aegis” into his conversation. He speaks softly, and his Arkansas roots are evident.


He has lived in Paris and Vienna, then sold his vintage 1960 Norton Midget Dominator motorcycle and used the money last November to move to Thailand. It is a country ruled by a military junta. But a laid-back junta, Falco says. He never sees the military, maybe sometimes a police officer. “Sharp-looking, well-kempt police, very friendly.”

The setting of Falco’s apartment is south of Bangkok, overlooking a beach on the Gulf of Thailand. From his balcony, he sees architecture with Grecian motifs, gardens, waterfalls. He feels the sea breeze. Thailand is, he says, “Interesting, exotic. I can’t imagine it being more different from the West than it is. You don’t sense a competitive edge among the people. People move quickly, but it’s a different kind of hurry. It’s a different kind of velocity, it’s not as neurotic.”

He contrasts this setting with America, where, “You’re always looking over your shoulder. When violence comes upon you in America, you don’t know where it’s coming from, it comes out of nowhere, most of the time. I don’t sense that imminent danger where I am now.”

While tucked away in this inspiring setting, Falco edits a feature film he’s written and directed. The first part of the Urania Trilogy, as he calls it, is done. It has been shown in “various cinematheques around the world.” Yes, he uses the word “cinematheque,” where you and I might settle for “theaters.” Or “theatres,” even. Two more parts have yet to be completed.

Some of it was filmed in Arkansas, the latter portions in Vienna — where Falco lived for four years — and Venice. Falco’s history is replete with one-way tickets.

Falco describes his Urania films as “a trilogy of intrigue.” The accompanying poster describes the story as “An INCARNATION of SUBVERSION, INSOLENCE of DECEPTION, the EXULTATION of VENGEANCE.” It’s about an American woman in North Little Rock — “riding in her BMW convertible, fending off rednecks” — stopping in a travel agency and seeing a poster of an elegant Vienna, and its baroque architecture. She buys a one-way ticket, and plunges into a setting of the café society of Freud, Jung and a chess-playing Leon Trotsky, and Nazi plunder buried at the bottom of an Austrian lake.

Falco likens the main characters to “the tarot card of the devil. He has a slave at his feet on that card, by his cloven feet. And there is a chain connected to the devil’s waist, and around the slave is a collar connected to that chain. But that collar is very wide, and all the slave has to do is pull that collar over his head, and the slave is free.”

But the slave does not attempt an escape. The characters of the Urania Trilogy are “too blind and too innocent to remove it,” Falco says. This is a story of innocence and the perversion of greed and lust.

Stories of Nazi plunder aside, he appears to have used the COVID break well. Internet classes on German and Italian, and now Thai. And, “music theory, after all this time,” he says. Falco declines to reveal his age, but the first Tav Falco’s Panther Burns album was released in 1986. Alex Chilton of The Box Tops and Big Star was in the first version, one of many versions, of the band.

Music theory ... isn’t it a little late in the game for that?

“I’m trying to learn what music is all about,” Falco says, “in terms of form and structure and tonalities, and the whole European way of writing music, notation. That’s a rather daunting undertaking.”

He may be a roots rocker, but he is also a romantic. Learning the tango and the samba. “I’ve become fascinated with cabaret,” he says, and while COVID raged, he sequestered himself in his apartment, developing a cabaret character he calls “L’Ultimo Gigolo.” And dancing to1930s music with a cane and a chapeau, like Maurice Chevalier. “I couldn’t even get anyone to dance in my apartment with me,” he says, “so I started to dance alone.”

He writes many of his own songs, but also records a lot of songs by women. Like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

“I’m totally enthralled by women,” he says, “and I celebrate women, and I have suffered with women. But I still love them, and I worship them in all of their mythical aspects, and their physical manifestations, and their elegance, their charm, the way they walk, their fingers when they pick up a napkin. And I see all of that, and it’s charming.”

And we see an Arkansas rocker dancing the tango in his living room in Thailand. The story is secondary.

“The only thing people are interested in is the persona of an artist,” Falco says. “They only care about the secret eye of an artist. What he sees, and that they don’t see, or that maybe they see some of it, but not in his way. Everything else is kind of an exercise in, you know, I don’t know, sensation or forensic information or what have you. That’s why we’re fascinated with Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Stendahl or Camus or whoever. And so, that’s all I have to offer.”

Falco concedes that the journey from Arkansas to Thailand “borders on the classic culture shock.” But we shouldn’t be shocked. It’s all the same song.

“I only sing one song in any media,” he says. “It’s the same one, it’s the song of unrequited love, brother against brother, burning mansions, lost causes. Unbridled emotional entanglements and all the consequences. Rekindling of romances when they should probably be left alone, that kind of thing. That’s what people want to hear about.”

So considering all of this, what is it we’ll hear from Tav Falco’s Panther Burns?

“Panther Burns have been greeted by howls of contempt on the one hand, and squeals of ecstasy on the other,” he says. “We are a polarizing factor.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.