The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion made some great records and were more adventurous in the studio than most of the bands that followed their lead in grafting blues power to punk noise, but they were first and foremost a live band, and on a good night, they were capable of converting nearly anyone who doubted their wisdom. Say what you want about Spencer's vocal histrionics or the semiotics of their approach to the sound and feel of the blues (viewed as wildly disrespectful by some critics), but once JSBX took the stage and started to play, they were an unstoppable force, one of the most energetic and passionate acts to ever plug into an amp. Any live recording of JSBX that doesn't allow you to see what the band was doing on-stage works at a powerful disadvantage (Spencer was arguably the most magnetic frontman of the day), but despite that, Controversial Negro offers a blazing aural portrait of the band giving their all for a crowd at Tucson's Hotel Congress in the fall of 1996. From the moment the band kicks into "Get with It," Controversial Negro roars at full-stop and stubbornly refuses to let up, and while the audio is as raw and raunchy as the music requires, it also gets the fat, muscular tone of Spencer and Judah Bauer's taut guitar interplay just right, and Russell Simins is a powerhouse behind the drums, never dropping a beat and sounding ferociously in the pocket wherever this music takes him. Spencer's skills as a showman are on fine display here, as he howls like a man possessed, pushes the band harder with every breath, and offers some hilarious give and take with the crowd (and he's not above the old "I remember my first beer" joke). This music gives lie to the notion that JSBX were just some postmodern prank -- any band that performs with this much sweat, passion, and fire clearly believes in what they're doing, and Controversial Negro documents a night when a packed house were converted to the power of the Blues Explosion. Play this loud and you'll join them.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming