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Friday, December 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch / Tom Scanlon

Eyes on the drummer; you never know what he'll do next

Most cover bands are about as useless as decaf coffee.

But if you think there's nothing very invigorating about watching a band play other people's songs, you haven't seen the Herding Cats. Forget the name, and focus on the drummer — like you can focus on anything else.

That's him on Sunday night at the Kirkland Avenue Pub, pretending to slow-motion drum (think the Bionic Man running) during the opening of the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes."

Now, on the John Mellencamp cornball epic "Pink Houses," the drummer in the British flag T-shirt is not-so-subtly editorializing by having a dog puppet "sing" the lead.

He wraps a giant Kermit the Frog doll's legs around his neck and grips a smaller one in his teeth as he keeps rhythm on "Here Comes the Sun."

As "Message in a Bottle" begins, he stands and plays the drums in toy-soldier fashion, the expression on his face saying something like, "Is this the worst song ever, or what?"

During the poignant part of "Major Tom," he dashes behind the stage's backdrop for an impromptu puppet show — and dashes back to the drum kit in time for the chorus.

Even when he is just sitting there playing, he's never just sitting there playing — forever twirling his sticks, hitting the cymbals behind his back, keeping time by hitting himself in the head.

And yet, for all his clowning, this shaggy-haired, young De Niro look-alike never seems to miss a beat. He'll be the first to tell you he's not the best drummer around, but he's surprisingly sharp, as evidenced when he thunders through the "Black Magic Woman" crescendo.

Jon Bolton: Keith Moon meets Jim Carrey.

"People think I'm on something, but that's just the way I am — I don't even drink," Bolton says, toweling off during a break.

Regarding his goofing, he says he genuinely loves music, but also loves playing the jester. "I'll do anything to entertain people, I just want to make people smile."

Bolton grew up — maybe "was raised" is a better way to put it, as he remains unabashedly child-like — in Enumclaw, and he also plays drums in the Beatniks, a popular Beatles-era cover band.

He says that his Beacon Hill apartment is filled with thousands of albums, most from '60s and '70s British bands (which explains the T-shirt). He started playing with the Herding Cats about a year ago when guitarist-singer Mike Mattingly and bass player Larry Lehnertz asked him — at the last minute — to sit in on a Kirkland gig.

Lehnertz hardly knew what he was in store for with Bolton. Asked if the drummer is the most bizarre musician he has played with, Lehnertz says, "He's definitely the most ... whatever. He's crazier than Keith Moon." And, the bass player adds, the crowd definitely responds to all the energy this drumming madman throws out from the stage.

The Herding Cats now play three regular shows a week: Tuesdays at Rox Broiler in Kenmore, Thursdays at Pioneer Square's J&M and Sundays in Kirkland. Last weekend, the Kirkland Avenue Pub, which is normally a pool-and-pull-tabs joint, was pretty well packed; all of the 200 eyes seemed to be focused on the stage, the crowd chuckling at Bolton's clowning, bobbing their heads to all the old hits, singing along to the "Muppet Show" theme.

Appropriate, that last one: The self-taught Bolton says his ideal isn't Moon, not Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, not Led Zeppelin's John Bonham. "My favorite drummer is Animal, from 'The Muppet Show.' "

The owners of the Kirkland Avenue Pub recently opened another venue for the music-starved Eastside: Intermission Pub and Parlour.

The Intermission has been open for about two months, occupying the space that once had an Easy Street Records store. Tuesdays are poetry nights, Wednesdays are open-mike night for singers. Folk and alternative acts — always on the mellow side — play here Thursdays through Sundays, with no cover charge.

The string band Hot Club Sandwich plays the Intermission tonight, with bluegrassers Red Emma's Dance Band there Saturday night. The Intermission is at 364 Park Place Center, in a mall (this being the Eastside) next to a multiplex.

A third of the way into the Blood Brothers' homecoming show at the Vera Project last weekend, Johnny Whitney, one of two screamer-singers, said, "Right about now on the tour is when someone would say, 'All your songs sound the same!' "

The local audience loved it, deciphering all the nuances of this punk-hardcore band; with vocalists Whitney and Jordan Blilie bouncing off each other like heated molecules, diving into the crowd and shouting cathartic anthems, it's Iggy Pop squared. (The Blood Brothers have a major-label release scheduled for early next year, an album produced by Ross Robinson, of Korn/Slipknot fame.)

Another Seattle band impatiently awaiting its big-label release returns from a tour this week: Vendetta Red plays Graceland on Thursday

(9 p.m., $8).

Tom Scanlon: 206-464-3891 or tscanlon@seattletimes.com.

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