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.

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