It’s a tricky business trying one’s hand at songwriting in the style of the Grateful Dead. Straight emulation just sounds flat-footed, and when one digs into the underlying structures of their songs it’s complicated and tangled like a piece of computer code not meant to be deciphered. To pair thoughtful, philosophical and even spiritual ideas to music that’s relevant to daily existence AND dance hall ready AND woven with curious intricacies isn’t easy. However, San Francisco’s Tracorum seem to have this crazed formula figured out based on their new studio effort Tricked, where moments feel like one’s wandered into a lost sunshine daydream from a night at the Mars Hotel. But this is no ghost dance, simply very talented dudes working with similar operating principles, a serious but not over serious approach to road ready hymns for life’s long highway.
While Garcia could have sung the living heart out of Tricked standouts like “City Lights” and “I Know A Place,” the Dead aren’t the only classic songwriters afoot in this set. “Working Man’s Groove” and several other cuts nod back to Chuck Berry and 50s foundational rock, and “Lady of the Night” and the title cut resonate with Piano Man-era Billy Joel shorn of the bombast and studio bolstering. In fact, this album is lean and clean, the quartet’s instruments and voices direct, nothing getting in the way of the tight arrangements and fundamentally great songwriting. The overall vibe bears some resemblance to Steely Dan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, where high end players are serving timely, melodically graceful material that still needed to be tour ready springboards.
Tracorum – Company For Life’s Many Bridge Crossings
The envelopingly full feel of Fletcher Nielsen (keys, lead vocals), Ian Herman (drums), Mark Calderon (bass, vocals) and Derek Brooker (guitar, vocals) is a sure-fire characteristic of Tracorum’s winning live presence, and Tricked effectively translates the band’s connected energies and outreaching charm to the studio. Piano is the primary keyboard, linking this music to New Orleans in a tangible way, and Nielsen’s singing utilizes phrasing that recalls Garcia but delivered in a voice hanging somewhere between Randy Newman and Lowell George. Calderon and Herman are a song-serving rhythm team in the vein of The Section’s Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel – always tasty and tasteful but rarely interested in spotlight attention. Brooker’s lean, conversational guitar work is a far cry from Jerry (or Bobby for that matter), his compact solos recalling Robin Trower in his Procol Harum days or Journey’s Neal Schon’s 70s brilliance. It’s not overreach to drop these four in such company; there’s little question they’ve woodshedded and studied long hours, not to mention Tracorum’s many impressive marathon concerts, where they nicely inhabit a number of Dead classics that sound totally natural next to their originals.
At the bottom, Tricked is a yearning, melodic act of true bohemian patriotism, a love letter to America’s “potential for humanity to live as one” even as the tribalism and mud-slinging that denotes ‘conversation’ amongst divergent factions today reminds us – sometimes in stingingly painful, bloody ways – that “people always fight what they don’t understand.” The good news this album hints at is “where it stops no one knows,” and while the destination at the end of this puzzling journey remains uncertain there’s hope that love, connection and compassion might yet carry a few key battles.
We shot DI’s signature questionnaire to the band, and here’s what they had to say.
One of the Impound’s All-Time Favorite Albums turned 21 this week, and we felt it was only right to buy it a drink and reflect on The Black Crowes’ astounding sophomore joint.
The Black Crowes have never been fashionable, a fact resoundingly obvious in 1992 as the band unveiled its second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, on May 12. Surrounded on a still fairly vibrant FM-radio and an increasingly dominant MTV by Nirvana, Def Leppard, Stone Temple Pilots, and Damn Yankees, the Crowes fit in with no other popular contemporaries, and looking at the album’s sepia-toned cover, one gets the sense they knew they walked alone. This is a gang captured in some clapboard trash heap shithole, dark-eyed and staring down all comers with a look that says, “You wanna go? Try us and see how that turns out.” These were probably the first guys to tell a father they shouldn’t let their daughter go out with them, and then, immediately following that admission, drive around to the back of the house to pick up the teen dream with a man-hungry grin crawling out of the bathroom window. The vintage-y clothes on most of the band suggest another time, perhaps a missed local sensation from the late 60s, but drummer Steve Gorman throws a monkey wrench into that theory with his short cropped hair and Reservoir Dogs suit, a succinct reminder that this is a modern band.
It’s a fine small move in the face of the endless nostalgia act labels thrown at the band since the second their 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker dropped out of the sky to kick up the ghost of Otis Redding and throw a lifeline back to the days when folks knew that rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ was inextricably tied to bumpin’ naughty bits and raising hell. All the endless Stones, Faces, etc. comparisons were never on the money since the Crowes were torchbearers not imitators; a young, ambitious group that lit their flame with Jerry Lee’s great flaming balls, guys nakedly and wildly in love with the idea of rock and its ability to enrich lives, starting with their own. Despite the dismissal of self-anointed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau and other music press, Shake Your Money Maker went on to sell a million copies its first year and another two million over time. Critics be damned, the sticky, visceral and appealingly misbehaved vibe of the Crowes connected with the people, who the band met in droves during near-constant touring the next two years.
SHAMC Inside Cover
But beyond being a really good time with some killer tunes about girl trouble (and troubled girls) with some of the best singing and riff work rock had seen in a spell, the initial phase of the Crowes didn’t prepare one for the sense of righteous cause that emanates from Southern Harmony. Perhaps sick of the comparisons and false assumptions, the band positively pulverizes their debut in record time, crackling to life like some massive, unruly machine as the guitars sizzle in the opening moments of “Sting Me” and then moving headlong through tunes alternately harder and more tender, and all of them sharper and denser than anything on Money Maker. The album raises a freak flag, inviting one into the valley of discovery, the roads strewn with the rotten fruit of quick fame and all the vermin it draws close. Nothing less than salvation was at stake, and the Crowes already knew that money can’t buy that.
No rock act prior to Southern Harmony sounds quite like this band, and it’s such a massively impactful presence that many since have used it as a template in their own attempts to find a band identity. The mixture of tough, fat free musical settings and juggernaut vocal attack is intoxicating, a force that envelops and leaves one in a heap, sweaty and slightly dazed, taken and tosseled by sure hands. As the album’s title suggests, this is a hedonistic house of worship, not quite pagan because God is in the mix but way more profane than sacred in any traditional sense. This feels holy, at least to anyone that worships at rock’s wide, welcoming altar, and one hardly wants for a better high priest than Chris Robinson.
Promo Still – 1992
While the whole band was fun and fascinating to watch, the sheer physicality and underlying attitude of the music reflected in their archetypically perfect rock bodies and faces, there is no denying that the lightning rod in this bunch is Chris. Even before the album hit, there was the bare bones here’s-some-fucking-rock-n-roll-take-it-or-leave-it video for “Remedy”. Fuck Austin Powers, women instantly wanted to be with this guy and men just as swiftly wished they had the mojo Robinson was swinging ‘round. If you’re not drawn to Chris watching this video then you’re probably not that into rock because there it is twirling, thrusting and sliding in a way that’d raise wood from a long dead Elvis Presley. And for anyone in 1992 that felt like they’d missed out on rock’s heyday, for anyone not ready to enthusiastically suckle Nirvana’s nihilism, for anyone hungry for music that made them feel alive and awake, well, it was apparent the flock was being called up to the mountain.
The boldness and unabashed majesty of many pieces on Southern Harmony implies the band were fully aware they were offering something bigger than another record. It would have been much easier to cover another 60s hit and actively play to the sensibilities of PR stooges and label suits. And it’s always risky business starting a church, even one as pro-pot and free love hailing as the Crowes’ version. One makes themselves a target when they don’t fall in line and play to the standards of the day. But, across Southern Harmony’s ten tracks there can be no doubting the faith The Black Crowes have in rock’s headier potential, in its capacity to engender soul and provide sustenance, and their conviction possessed – and still possesses to this day – the power to make believers of the open-hearted and free-wheeling.
What amazes me is how the potency of this Musical Companion has never diminished for me – and I’m surely not alone based on the small army of Amoricans that swear by this album the way many do the Good Book. Despite the hundreds and hundreds of spins I’ve given Southern Harmony it still thrills me multiple times each rollicking trek I make from “Sting Me” to the Babylon blasting coda of their cover of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell.” I spin and dance and shake my fists, fired up by “No Speak No Slave” or suddenly contemplative visiting the dregs of old loves during “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye.” Every tick and turnaround has the feel of muscle memory, as if I had made this music, the sense of personal ownership and importance much more profound for me with this album than almost any other. This is the way of it with things we hold sacred – a far more subjective thing than organized religion might suggest.
I know that “if my rhythm ever falls out of time” that this song cycle will set me right. I know when heaven, peace and understanding seem distant or downright impossible that I’ll find understanding and real fucking streetwise wisdom inside these grooves – not the platitudes of ancient prophets but something visceral I feel in the pit of me. At a point in my life where I’d rejected my Catholic upbringing and was being pressured into a disastrous first marriage, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion found me and gave me hope and fuel for a rocky road, one of those beautiful surprises that has helped sustain me even as it entertained me to a hellacious degree.
It is a work that endures, continuing to provide the unbreakable spine of the Crowes’ live shows and inform countless lives despite being more than two decades old. A factoid sometimes trotted out about Southern Harmony is its release occurred 20 years to the day after the Rolling Stones’ long-canonized Exile On Main Street, as if the two are spiritual twins or something of the sort. Frankly, I’d say that the Crowes put out the better record and one far bolder than the Stones’ offering, which arrived when they were already a well-established, world famous brand with virtually nothing to lose by rediscovering and slightly reinventing the blues. Oh, I surely love Exile but it took the Stones awhile to reach that raw, live wire place and the Crowes did it on their second album AND in a well oiled recording industry climate that leaned on them hard not to go so thoroughly their own way. The album was indeed a commercial success but it marks the real beginning of the band’s journey into what can only be called “Black Crowes Music,” a sound sincere, strong and utterly unconcerned about what the flavor of the day, month or year might be. It is the rock upon which a house of faith was built, and the sturdiness and wisdom of the decision shows in the continued authenticity, originality and potency of The Black Crowes today.
The Del-Lords (L-R): Frank Funaro, Scott Kempner, Eric Ambel, Michael DuClos
Long after the Mileys and Macklemores are forgotten, anyone coming across the music of The Del-Lords will instantly recognize a Grade-A cut of rock ‘n’ roll, a well-muscled sound full of attitude and heartache with lines running back to the 1950s Sun Records roots and 1970s proto-punk but existing in a now that doesn’t tie it down in any one period. This is a band that makes rock relevant to daily existence with a rattle and hum for the working stiffs and everyday lovers. Their songs and the direct, clear cry of the tautly wielded instruments and ruggedly human voices just work so, so well – a testament to how hard it is to make the fundamentals cut a rug without dressing them up in whore’s paint and frilly outfits. A gut level veracity resides at the core of what this New York City quartet does, where conviction and loud guitars grin and offer up tunes to anyone ready to get down in the streets with them.
As enduringly excellent as The Del-Lords’ 80s output remains – the uninitiated are instructed to check out 1984’s Based On A True Story, one of that decade’s under-sung classics – the band’s first new album in 23 years, Elvis Club (released May 14), is, in the Impound’s estimation, the best damn record they’ve ever made. Elvis Club is the sort of slab perfect for The Stooges’ tour bus, quality drinking holes nationwide, and contemplative leather clad rockers everywhere, a thumping, sneakily thoughtful master class in what a classic four-piece rock band can do. This set fully establishes the band’s return to active service this decade after a long hiatus, and cements their spot alongside fellow travelers like The Smithereens and The Mother Hips as keepers of a flame radio and the mainstream press rarely fan appropriately.
From the instant classic opener “When The Drugs Kick In” through the insanely infectious “Flying” right to the end, Elvis Club is one dead solid killer after another, music born from the varied, substantial experience of Scott Kempner (lead vocals, guitars), Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (guitars, vocals), Michael DuClos (bass, harmony vocals) and Frank Funaro (drums, percussion, harmony vocals), whose huge, varied resumes include Kempner’s crucial work with The Dictators and Dion, Ambel’s extensive production/engineering work (though DI encourages y’all to check out his unsung 1995 solo album Loud & Lonesome for a nasty American answer to Rory Gallagher’s heavy rock), as well Funaro’s ever-great stick work with Cracker, Joey Ramone and others. A subtle air of romance hovers in spots, not nostalgia but an appreciation of what endures and how challenging and rare it is to make love – or music for that matter – that lasts. It is a lock for Dirty Impound’s Favorite Albums of 2013, and if there’s any justice, plenty of other roundup lists, too.
We shot a few questions to Ambel and Kempner and here’s what the songwriting phalanx of The Del-Lords had to say.
What is an Elvis Club and how does one obtain membership? Seems like folks have been trying to get into this one since the mid-1950s, and more than a few have died trying.
Scott: Unlike my nickname, Top 10, and as Damon Runyon would say, as for the name ELVIS CLUB, a story goes with it. In the early days of the band, back in the early 80′s, at a few junctures, the four of us found ourselves living under one roof. Eric and Manny shared a railroad flat apartment on East 13th street in the East Village, and often so did Frank and myself. Four of us splitting one can of beans and one can of rice between us.
Meanwhile, our rehearsal space, which was also part clubhouse, office, laboratory, and hang-out, was up on 8th Avenue, in the Garment District, near the Port Authority. A big twelve story former warehouse that had been made into what was essentially an apartment building, except no one actually lived there. Lotsa bands & un-affiliateds (FLESHTONES, THE IG, THE dBs, and get this, MADONNA!!! This is true) rehearsed there. You could split the rent with a few other bands, so you worked out rehearsal schedules, storage, etc., and we were up there on the 6th floor. It was also a neighborhood heavily served by hookers of all shapes and sizes and all else.
No matter what time of day or night, those ladies were out there workin’ it. Back to your question: One day we are walking from East 13th and 1st Ave. to rehearsal – we walked the two and a half miles both ways often, as we were, as Abbott & Costello would say, “financially embarrassed”. So, one day as we reach 8th Ave., one of the hookers looks at us: four black leather jackets, jeans, boots and sneakers, AND a big old pompadour sitting up on each of our heads, she says right out loud, “Whoah, what is this, The Elvis Club?” Not AN Elvis Club, but THE Elvis Club. That is actually from whence this album title derives. Thirty years after the fact.
The Del-Lords have been back together for a few years now and it would have been easy enough to just play the old tunes to old fans as a live act. What prompted the new album and what was it like working on a full-length release again after more than two decades?
Scott: This whole thing reignited with most of the songs in place first. We didn’t get together to play originally. I had gotten together with Eric with the idea of him producing some songs that I had written. There was also the idea of the two of us going out and playing some shows – in Spain, and here at home. You gotta have something else to sell out there these days, and it is truthfully half of a touring artist’s income. By this point, Frank had come aboard, and so had Manny, to what might have turned out to be just Eric and me. So, Eric and I put down some skeletal tracks for a few songs, and the process was suddenly underway.
1984 Debut Album
The idea of going out to play shows after such a long time between drinks without new songs is not one I, nor would I expect Frank or Eric, have any interest in. What would be the point? I take this stuff very seriously. I may or may not take myself too seriously sometimes, but I know FOR SURE I take rock ‘n’ roll VERY seriously. I have my own aesthetics, my own sensibility of what is cool and what is not, and, basically, the present and the future justify the past, and vice versa. To go out and only play songs that are at least 20 years old smacks more of a one-time only benefit situation oldies-style celebration of the past, as opposed to truly revving it up and taking it back out of the garage and onto the street. Everything we do is, to us, within the context of what we’ve already done, so we all feel that if we are gonna put our good name on something it needs to be worthy of our own history. This was the first time since the first record that we had such a relaxed feeling of control, intent, and lack of outside pressure of any kind. It galvanized us in a new way.
I would say this was the best recording experience of the band’s career. With Eric in charge, and the rest of us feeling extremely confident in his being in the producer’s chair, the tone was set from the get-go. Nothing felt labored or forced in any way – a very easy, upbeat feeling of community and purpose. We recorded together, we ate together, we laughed a lot, and we could all feel we were playing better than ever, both as individuals, and as a band.
Eric: When we decided to accept the offer to go to tour Spain in 2010 we decided we wanted to work on new songs as opposed to just doing the old ones. For me, working on Scott’s tunes and playing with the guys again was a real joy. Making the record at my recording studio with my well oiled team made it that much more fun and satisfying.
Aristotle Knows What’s Up
Given the wide experience you guys have in different bands, as solo artists, etc. what is it that makes The Del-Lords appeal to you? What is at the core of your chemistry as a quartet?
Scott: A band is the pure essence of rock ‘n’ roll, both metaphorically and literally. The chemistry comes from the humanity at the heart of it. It is this particular set of guys from whence the chemistry emanates. Who we are comes through in the music. The songs provide the vehicle. Chemistry is an elusive thing, and cannot be willed into existence merely by putting the “best” players together, much like an All-Star team will never have the chemistry of a team that plays together every day. On the other hand, to try and nail it down, define it, shape it, and put it in a box is impossible. That is why, as Little Steven says, when it is there you do everything and anything to keep it together because it is a rare gift, and, in most cases, it is a once in a lifetime occurrence more precious than gold.
Eric: Aristotle said it very well:
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
A real band is a truly special thing. Different than a ‘project,’ different than a front guy and some sidemen, it’s like a relay race. Can’t be beat.
Props for naming a tune “Everyday,” particularly given that it sounds like something Buddy Holly might have knocked out if he’d lived into the modern era. There’s also a whiff of Roy Orbison to this one, and both guys float in the backdrop of a few Del-Lords compositions. Are you fans of ol’ Buddy, Roy and early rock ‘n’ roll in general? Why do you think that stuff endures and inspires still the way it does?
Scott: It is funny that you pick up the spirit of Buddy Holly here, although I know the song title is a clue. The truth is I wrote this one with Dion, and it was specifically written for a scene in a screenplay written by Chazz Palmintieri for a biopic about Dion that Chazz was gonna also direct. The song was written for the scene where the Winter Dance Party tour hits Clear Lake, Iowa. The bus pulls into the motel parking lot, and upon entering the lobby the guys are met with the first TV reports of the fatal plane crash that took Buddy, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Buddy had given Dion his guitar to take to the hotel and, when Dion, in a state of shock from the news gets to his room, takes out the guitar, tries to remember that new song Buddy played last night called “Everyday,” and can’t quite remember it, this is what comes out. Poetic license, yes, but it’s a song about friendship, so it is fitting that Dion remembers it this way.
All the first generation rockers, like the great bluesmen, Hank, Cash, Woody, etc. are like holy men to me. Their words and music are scripture, and their movements guided by heaven. They are my spiritual sustenance.
The Del-Lords’ drummer does just what a rock foundation should – play to the songs with strength and instinctual restraint. Tell us a bit about playing with Frank.
Scott: Everything starts with the drummer. There is no such thing as a great rock ‘n’ roll band without a great drummer. We have Frank. I have never played with a more simpatico, song-oriented drummer. I have also never had the connection with another drummer the way I do with Frank, especially as it pertains to this band. Frank seems to get better almost time we play together. Frank always plays from within the song, and he is always there at the service of the song, as opposed to the other way around. That is a greater and rarer talent than one would think. Plus, he is my brother, and that too is not to be underestimated in regards to the contribution Frank makes.
Eric: The songs come first. Frank is a superlative “song player”. While recording, we had four great guys (Keith Christopher, Jason Mercer, Steve Almaas and Michael DuClos) play bass with us. It always felt like the Del-Lords with Frank leading the way.
You’ve got “NYC” smack in the middle of the band’s signature logo. What’s so important about New York City? How does it define who this group is?
Scott: NYC, perhaps more than most cities, is never just the place you live; it is also the place that lives with you, like a roommate, like a badge, like a burden, and like a brother or sister. It is in everything we play, and it defines us to a great extent. The songs themselves would be different if not for our town, and we, too, would be different if we came from anywhere else.
Eric: Rock and Roll at its most elemental has always been a hybrid that borrows from different musics (like country and blues). New York City has always been a big part of the hybrid that is The Del-Lords version of rock and roll.
The first time I heard the name “The Del-Lords” I thought it sounded like a gang from the movie The Warriors. Does this feel like a gang after all these years? Does the Three Stooges association still have any resonance?
Scott: Talk about holy men! The Three Stooges are, as Kerouac said, “holy goofs”. They are part of our fabric. A band is a gang. I always felt that a band name had to satisfy three criteria: it needed to sound good as a band name (duh!), it needed to sound like a gang name, and it needed to sound like a bowling team. Mission accomplished!