Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Denver Neobilly

Mad Dog and the Smokin' J's (left) and the Hillbilly Hellcats--two of Colorado's finest rockabilly trios

Anyone reading my latest posts knows that I’ve spent the past half a year obsessed with early country, western swing, honky tonk, and rockabilly.  In my last post I wrote about the various rockabilly revivals of the past fifty-odd years, and about the neobilly and psychobilly movements in particular.  I decided to check out the rockabilly landscape of my adopted home of Denver/Boulder and I discovered that Denver is actually quite a hotbed of rockabilly and has a thriving scene with many bands and a stable circuit of clubs willing and eager to showcase their talents.  I’m not exactly sure why there is such a thriving scene here.  Perhaps it’s in reaction to the nutty-crunchy 60’s hippie jam band vibe that is so prevalent in Colorado (and in Boulder in particular).  It might be because Denver is kind of a meeting place between the hipster culture of the West Coast and the redneck/country culture of the Midwest; if you think about it those were pretty much the exact conditions under which rockabilly/rock was born I Memphis in the mid-50’s, back when “the west” was anything on the far side of St. Louis.  Whatever the reason, I’ve started to explore some of the best local talent both online and live to see how it measures up.

Dixie Leadfoot and the Chrome Struts are fronted by stand-up bass player and singer Suzannah Harris, who has an extensive and impressive bio, and has sung for both (inter)nationally recognized acts such as Frank Zappa and Steve Vai.  Harris has some pretty impressive pipes and her doghouse work isn’t too bad either.  Nate Harris plays guitar and Nick Gnojek beats the skins for this highly polished classic rockabilly trio.  They don’t have any albums for sale in iTunes or Amazon but a handful of live numbers have been uploaded from a recent 2012 gig at Denver’s Buffalo Rose club, including covers of “That’s All Right, Mama” by Arthur Crudup (and Elvis of course), Gene Vincent’s “Ain’t That Too Much”  (which starts with Harris’ meaty bass thumping and also features some nifty fretwork from Nate), a slow, sweet cover of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You”, and a strutting version of Wanda Jackson’s  “Rockabilly Fever” which is my personal fave given how I recently discovered the wild, amazing rockabilly work by this female pioneer.  This band has great taste in covers and the solid chops to back them up. 

On the rawer side is Whisky Throttle.  I can’t find much on this band—they have nothing in iTunes, Amazon, or even YouTube, and even their MySpace page doesn’t have a proper bio.  According to one page I found, they consist of Norm from Utah, GOGO from Missouri, and Doyle (not to be confused, I’m pretty sure, with the infamous Doyle of the Misfits) from parts unknown. They are also not to be confused with the Tennessee band Whisky Throttle, who play a country/hard rock blend.  The songs on their MySpace page (“Depth Charge”, “Hard Luck Blues”, “Memphis”, “Red Shack” and “Moon Twist”) showcase their neobilly stylings.  The vocals are a bit weak but the guitar playing is solid and the energy is high.  These guys are probably pretty rocking live.  My favorite songs are “Memphis”, which features the best guitar picking, and “Depth Charge”, which is mostly instrumental and almost bridges the gap between traditional rockabilly and some of the surf guitar crunch of Link Wray or Dick Dale.

The hard working Mad Dog and the Smokin’ J’s were formed in 2009 by drummer Mike “Mad Dog” Minnick but have already played over 550 shows and released four albums, one of which, 2010;s Fuel for the Fire, is actually available on iTunes on 15 cent Records and isn’t bad in a minimalist Stray Cats kind of way.  The best cut is “Fast Track”, a catchy, up-tempo number with some melodic guitar work, and “The Roadie Life” is another memorable track.  The album is hampered by tinny recording that diminishes what is obviously some fervent energy. They also have an impressive catalog of live tunes uploaded to YouTube.  They have shuffled through a number of guitarists and supposedly have evolved toward a sound incorporating country and punk according to their bio on ReverbNation.  They certainly have unique taste in covers if their YouTube uploads are any indication:  “Rocker” by AC/DC, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” by Hank Williams Sr., “Hot Dog” by Led Zeppelin, “Wild One” by Johnny O’Keefe (made famous by Iggy Pop but also covered by Jerry Allison of the Crickets and Jerry Lee Lewis and most recently covered by, ugh, the Chipmunks), and “Salty Leather” by skate punk band Aggression.  These creative covers show how flexible rockabilly is and how nearly any song can sound good when adapted to the rockabilly idiom.  Their cover of the classic 50’s guitar instrumental “Sleepwalk” is as good as any I’ve heard.  My favorite song by theirs is a YouTube upload from a 2010 Denver Children’s Hospital benefit at Herman’s Hideaway called “All I Got To Show”; this song is slow but powerful and anthemic; not sure if this is a cover or not?  It features Smokin' Joe Clark on guitar and vocals; he’s since been replaced by Rex “Colfax Slim” Moser.  Clark’s strong, passionate vocals and the grungy strut of this song remind me of “Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion.  I’d love to see this band settle on a guitarist and a signature sound since I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve heard so far but it’s been tantalizingly too little and too varied.

The Barnyard Stompers are a raw but hugely talented power duo in the tradition of the White Stripes featuring Casey Miller on guitar and vocals and Megan “Go-Go” Wise on drums.  Alas, nothing on iTunes but a couple videos of live performances are uploaded on YouTube, including a cover of “’59 Black Cadillac” which gallops along with propulsive drumming and some tricked-out guitar work and has Miller singing through a bullhorn for a more manic psychobilly flavor.  Several songs are also available for listening on their entry on the rockabilly web site ReverbNation; I like “Hillbilly Rock and Roll Star” and its driving beat but the other songs showcase this band’s softer side with the acoustic “Carmelita”, the Mexican tinged “Carreterra”, and the Irish jig (!) “Rocky Road to Dublin”.  This is clearly a band with a diverse set of musical tastes and influences.

Another local neobilly band with a lot of polish and professionalism are the four piece Atomic Drifters; these guys can really play and sport a crisp, polished, authentic sound that evokes the best of the Stray Cats but really gets that Sun simplicity down pat too.  They have a huge assemblage of live performance videos on YouTube as well as some clean studio cuts on their MySpace page.  My favorite of the latter is “Please Mama Please”, which really nails the early Sun Elvis sound perfectly.  I really love this stuff, truly.  “Hollowbody Tsunami” is a classic Dick Dale surf instrumental, while “Big Blon’ Baby” has more of a Jerry Lee Lewis feel like “Great Balls of Fire”.  “Go Go Go” rumbles like “Mystery Train” by Elvis with some authentic Scotty Moore sounding guitar licks tearing it up in the middle.  “Gears Grease Guitars” really brings to mind classic Stray Cats songs like “Rock This Town” with its swinging up-tempo beat and sassy guitar.  “Leave Me Blue” on their ReverbNation page is another clean, crisp revelation.  The live cuts feature covers by some of the usual suspects:  Fats Domino, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Dion, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash.  This band is really near the top of my current favorite list and I hope they can put out a proper album soon that captures their fantastic sound.

The dean of Colorado rockabilly bands is, of course, the Hillbilly Hellcats.  Formed in the early 90’s by guitarist Chuck Hughes, the Hellcats have four albums on iTunes and  1996’s Rev It Up With Taz (featuring Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley), 1998’s Our Brand, and 2012’s Live in Missoula and Early Daze.  My favorite songs by them are “Hillbillies on Speed” and “White Trash” which lyrically mine a similar vein to Horton Heat or Southern Culture on the Skids but sonically are eerily reminiscent of the Stray Cats in their 80’s heyday.  “Road Rage” off Our Brand has a heavier surf crunch to the guitars while “Everyone Was Drinkin’ Martinis But Me” has a swingy, jive-y tempo that makes it sound like Brian Setzer Orchestra’s cover of “Jump Jive and Wail”.  ‘I Never Thought” has humorous self-deprecating lyrics that marry well to its jittery, jangly rockabilly groove.  “Havin’ It All” and “Hot Rockin’ Rhythm” sound like lost Stray Cat songs while “Ghost Train” has the high lonesome wail of early country-infused rockabilly.  “Leavin’ Colorado” is even more country, with a steel guitar and jaunty rhythm.  Alas, the Hellcats appear to be broken up, or at the very least are on hiatus, but Chuck Hughes has been gigging all over the Centennial State with his new eponymous combo, the Chuck Hughes Band.

Rockabilly has become a genre of rock music that has withstood the test of time.  It might not always be the most popular music but it will always have adherents, often but not exclusively regular blue collar joes who like their beer cold and their music fast.  It’s kind of nice to think that you can walk into almost any city in this country and find at least one bar or club catering to the rockabilly crowd.  I for one am happy so many high quality bands are cranking out great rockabilly sounds within a stone’s throw of me and I hope to get out there and see some of them soon.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Rumble in Brighton: Rockabilly Revivals and PsychoBill

Dave Alvin (left) and James Intveld, two LA rockabilly revivalist pioneers

In my last post, I discussed the wild, frenetic early beginnings of rockabilly in the mid-50’s. Sometime around 1960 or so, rockabilly started to decline in popularity.  Elvis being drafted, the deaths of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry’s arrest on Mann Act violations, Little Richard leaving perfoming temporarily to join the ministry, all seemed to take some of the momentum away from this musical art form. 

But rockabilly has undergone a number of revivals over the subsequent forty-odd years.  Starting even in the mid to late 60’s, England’s teddy boys worshipped at the altar of Bill Haley and all things 50’s and greaser, and clashes between rockers and mods punctuated the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Malcolm McLaren’s first store on King’s Road in London catered to the teddy boy crowd in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  And the pub rock movement in England that presaged the punk explosion of the late 70’s was built on a solid foundation of respect for rockabilly and other forms of early rock; Dr. Feelgood and Be-Bop Deluxe both hearkened to an earlier, wilder, but simpler era, and echoes of rockabilly can be heard in their music. 

 But it was Los Angeles that was a major force in the rockabilly revival in the 80’s, with groups like the Blasters and Levi and the Rockats jitterbugging it up on bills with punk bands like X and Black Flag. I mentioned in a previous post that it was my extreme good fortune to interview Dave Alvin of the Blasters, Knitters, and X when I was a DJ at UCLA’s radio station in around ’88 or ’89; he was as nice and professional a human being as has ever lived, and it’s given me enormous pride and satisfaction to see his career continue to grow over the years.  His compositions on the Blasters’ self-titled second album are first rate, most notably “American Music”, a celebration of, and reflection of American roots rock and roll that garnered considerable national interest in 1983.

Around the same time, I met a girl on my dorm floor who was really into X and she took me to see Billy Zoom’s post-X solo band, and they played a rip roarin’ rockabilly-punk fusion that presaged some of the wild stuff that came out in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  This girl also took me to see rockabilly icon James Intveld at a Hollywood club in late 1985.  Intveld is a largely unheralded figure in rock circles but has spent the better part of the past three decades working with local musicians such as Billy Zoom, Rosie Flores, and the Blasters (he played guitar for them through the 80’s and into the 90’s).  His own brother Ricky was a member of Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and died tragically in the plane crash that took Rick’s life as well.  James’ sound strides somewhere in the territory between that of the earliest rockabilly icons like Eddie Cochran and that of contemporary rockabilly interpreters like Chris Isaak.  Falling closer to the former is his sweet, rocking song “My Heart is Achin’ For You”, a 1982 single of his on Dog House Records that can be found on YouTube, which really splits the difference between the more rocking aspects of Eddie Cochran and the sweet, catchy pop work of Buddy Holly.  Another standout Intveld track is also only available on YouTube is his cover of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with Billy Zoom and Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats from a 1987 episode of Art Fein’s Poker Party; Zoom famously acts like a cranky curmudgeon in this video but James and Setzer seem to be having a terrific time ripping through this terrific old gem. Intveld’s more recent stuff is more introspective and thoughtful; specifically, “Remember Me”, which is clearly inspired by the struggles of his father with cognitive decline with aging, has an aching, high lonesome sound that evokes the best of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” era work.  Intveld has never really gotten the respect he’s deserved for his part in reviving, and more importantly, extending, rockabilly beyond its beginnings.  Anyway, he has two albums available commercially on iTunes and elsewhere, 2000’s Somewhere Down the Road, which contains the aforementioned “Remember Me”, and 2008’s more purely country Have Faith. Both are well worth checking out.

In the early 80’s, rockabilly boomed as the Stray Cats exploded, first in England and then in their native America, and brought rockabilly back into mainstream culture.  I have a distinct and embarrassing memory of my mom raving about how great the Stray Cats were because her aerobics instructor played “Rock This Town” in her aerobics class in 1983!  Despite this queasy memory of my mother in leg warmers and a leotard, this has remained my favorite song by the Cats, though I also like “Rumble in Brighton” (a fictional paean to the rocker-mod battles), “Runaway Boys”, and “Double-Talkin’ Baby”.  I must admit that at the time I considered the Stray Cats nothing more than a passing fad, similar to the Bowery Boy swing of Roman Holiday and the blue eyed Northern soul of Haircut 100 and the quirky synth weirdness of Blancmange.  In some ways I was right; after two brilliant albums, the Stray Cats broke up and lead Cat Brian Setzer spent some time wandering in the roots rock wilderness before embracing a second retro fad, swing music, which he also rode to the top in the late 90’s. 

It would be easy to dismiss Setzer as a past-obsessed cultist and opportunist but that would be very very wrong.  Setzer truly seems to love and respect older musical styles and far from treating them as a vehicle for popularity has been a loyal adherent to rockabilly and swing well before, and long after, any mainstream popularity either had.  In recent years Setzer has interspersed rockabilly albums between his swing outings, most notably on his albums Ignition, Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy, and 13.  These albums have showcased his phenomenal rockabilly guitar ability; Setzer as much as any human being alive has done more to maintain rockabilly not as a museum piece but as a viable, legitimate musical art form in the 21st century.  YouTube is littered with videos of Setzer showing up as a surprise at some other artist’s gig and doing an exuberant cover during their encore.  One of my favorite videos like this is of Setzer crashing a gig by Wayne Hancock and covering Hank Williams’ “Mind Your Own Business”; Wayne looks elated to be sharing the stage with such an icon and both of them clearly are having a great time.  Setzer isn’t getting paid for these impromptu live collaborations, he does it because he truly loves the music. 

Rockabilly fell from the national consciousness after the Stray Cats broke up in the mid-80’s, but it has never truly gone away.  Most notably in the late 80’s and early 90’s several bands came along to not only keep rockabilly alive and kicking but also to supercharge it going toward the new millennium.  Most obviously there has been the Reverend Horton Heat, who are one of the main architects of what came to be called “psychobilly”.  Psychobilly has its origins in the twangy, swamp rock blues of the Cramps; their 1986 album A Date With Elvis set an early standard for punk-infused, raunchy neo-rockabilly with songs like “What’s Inside a Girl” and “Hot Pearl Snatch” as well as the legendary “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog”.  Since his first album’s release in 1990, the Reverend has become as much a musical institution as the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, or Metallica, dishing up turbocharged hellfire hillbilly rock on release after release and in his legendarily raucous concerts.  He more than anyone else has been responsible for infusing rockabilly with the wild raw energy of punk and hardcore.  I’ve only just begun to explore the Reverend’s catalog of songs, but my current favorites are “Bad Reputation” and “Psychobilly Freakout” off Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, “Wiggle Stick” and “Lonesome Train Whistle” off 1993’s The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat, “One Time for Me”, “Jezebel”, and “I Can’t Surf” off Liquor in the Front, the title track off 1996’s It’s Martini Time, “A Girl In Blue” and “I’ll Make Love” off Spend a Night in the Box, and “Like a Rocket from 2002’s Lucky 7. 

A number of other artists have continued to explore the boundaries of psychobilly.  Buffalo, NY group the Quakes were another early psychobilly pioneer.  Like the Stray Cats, they initially fled America to England during the 80’s in search of a more viable retro musical scene.  Their 1988 debut album is as raw and hard as Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All; songs like “Pack Your Things and Go” are dark and echoey and crude. “You’re Dead” owes as much to the Misfits as it does to the Stray Cats.  Their second album mined a similar vein but their third LP, 1993’s New Generation, highlighted a new pop-rockabilly approach that was invariably disappointing to their core fans.  The title track has a barundi beat and sounds more influenced by Adam and the Ants than by Carl Perkins; what it reminds me of is a blend of early Adam and the Ants with the accessibly 80’s English lite-rockabilly group the Polecats, who’s song “Make a Circuit With Me” was a minor hit.  Other songs like “Dateless Nights” hewed closer to the dark, crude Misfits and Cramps sounds of their first two albums.  Perhaps their best album is 1996’s Quiff Rock; the production has been cleaned up without diminishing the energy or fire and songs like “Throw It All Away” and “Cool To Be a Punk” sparkle and roar.  The Quakes have continued to tour and release albums into the 2000’s and remain a viable force in psycho/rockabilly circles.

Atlanta’s Psycho Devilles formed in the 2000’s around guitarist and singer “Hot Rod” Walt Richards.  They play a barn burning variant of rockabilly not too far removed from Horton Heat’s wild antics.  But this band doesn’t obscure their talented chops behind crude production or ultra-fast rhythms; this is one super tight and talented group of guys and when they turn up the volume it isn’t to hide their flaws but to highlight their talents.  The Devilles are simply one of the best rockabilly/psychobilly bands out there right now.  Among their best songs are “Chopped Up, Hopped Up”, “Jailhouse Bop”, “Bar Fight”, and “Psycho Cadillac” off their 2007 album Psycho Cadillac.  I also like “Thrills For Sure” and “Roots Rock” off Supercharger; “Victory Curls” and “Night Prowler” off 2009’s Night Prowler; and “Torn Up” and the countrified “One Minute At a Time” off –Rockabilly Rodeo from 2012.  This latter album saw the Devilles moving toward a softer, more country-influenced sound, not a bad move for these talented guys.

Nashville, Tennessee’s Hillbilly Casino also released their debut album in 2007; these cats all have hipster cred from stints in much more prominent retro bands, including Brian Setzer’s Nashvillains and the neo-country group BR5-49.  Their sound is like raved up country; songs like “Plain To See” off 2007’s Sucker Punched sound like Hank Williams Sr. as interpreted by Rob Zombie; the song “Voodoo Doll” off this same album even gives a shout out to the Ramones in the form of the “hey ho, let’s go” chant in the middle.  I also like the lighter, Stray Cats sound of “Don’t Stick Around” and “Stop, Drop, and Roll” off their follow-up album Three Step Windup. 2010’s Tennessee Stomp includes the toe tapping “Debt with the Devil” as well as the Johnny Cash-infused duet with Dale Watson “The Ballad of Psycho Steve”. 

Three Bad Jacks hail from the decidedly unrocking town of Woodland Hills, California, but their high energy rockabilly belies their sleepy suburban roots.  They have become a major draw throughout Hollywood and Southern California with their rave-up sound.  Aptly named lead singer Elvis Suissa has a snarl and croon (as well as a hoody charisma) that would knock the pink socks off the King himself, particularly on songs like “Downtown’s Gonna Rumble” and “Long Black Train”.  “Hellbound Train” is more of a punked-up rockabilly raver with a wild, Dead Boys meet Jerry Lee vibe.

One thing that has evolved over the years is a distinction between psychobilly and what is often called neobilly.  Psychobilly of course refers to the rawer, louder, heavier, punkier form of rockabilly crafted by groups like the Cramps and Reverend Horton Heat.   Neobilly, on the other hand, refers to more traditional straight-up rockabilly revival music, and in fact in recent years bands have tended to avoid this syllogism and instead just refer to themselves as a “rockabilly” band.  Moreover, most practitioners frequently cross over this line; even Horton Heat himself plays almost as much straight-up rockabilly as he does psychobilly.  So the line, if it even exists at all, is a blurry one and these days there isn’t much distinction.

One guy who has consistently explored the opposite, more tender side of rockabilly is Chris Isaak, and Chris is another artist who rarely gets his due.  Isaak gets a lot of flak because his music is more soulful and mellow and because it often does well on the adult contemporary charts.  But Isaak has devoted a long and enjoyable career to the sounds of the 50’s.  His work leans more heavily on ballads than on barn burners and hews closer to the work of Ricky Nelson and Roy Orbison, but he’s also provided a number of high energy numbers over the years, like “Gone Ridin’”, “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”, his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddley Daddy”, “Go Walking Down There”, his cover of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man”, and others.  His earlier work was also much twangier and closer to classic rockabilly; songs like “Western Stars” and “Gone Ridin’”, “Tears”, “Voodoo”, “Talk to Me”, and “Livin’ For Your Lover” off his debut album all retain the reverb sound of early Johnny Cash, and “Blue Hotel” off his eponymous 1987 follow-up sounds like classic late 50’s Elvis.  My favorite songs by Chris are “Dancin’” off 1985’s Silvertone (named after a famous rockabilly guitar model but this also was the name of Chris’ pre-solo band), “Somebody’s Crying” off 1995’s Forever Blue and “Walk Slow” off 1998’s Speak of the Devil, and pretty much everything off the Baja Sessions album but especially “Pretty Girls Don’t Cry”, “Two Hearts”, and “Think of Tomorrow”.  I can remember seeing the music video for “Dancin’” in ’85 or ’86 and really liking it even then.  I’ve also seen Chris twice in concert and he always puts on a fantastic, high energy show.   I recently watched his PBS special on his latest album, 2011’s Beyond the Sun, in which Chris went to Sun Studios in Memphis and covered a number of Sun singles both famous and obscure.  He also shares the stage with rockabilly hellcat Wanda Jackson, who at 82 can still get up and belt out “Fujiyama Mama”.  My favorites off this album are his cover of the King’s “Trying To Get To You”, Carl Perkins’ “Dixie Fried”, and his originals “Live It Up” and “Lovely Loretta”.

Isaak’s former guitarist, James Wilsey, released an album of guitar instrumentals in 2008 called El Dorado. Anyone loving the twangy melancholy of Isaak songs like “Wicked Game” will greatly enjoy this album.  “City of Broke Dolls” is fantastic, as is “Tierra Del Fuego”. 

In coming posts I hope to explore, with the help of the fantastic web site Reverbnation, some of the smaller and more regional rockabilly groups and see what I can find.