I post a lot of songs here that are finely crafted and rich with subtlety and emotional depth. But there are times when I just want something to blast the cobwebs out of my mind and get me moving. For that, there is rock and roll. When I turned 18 in New Jersey, I was legal to drink. I knew many people who celebrated the occasion by achieving advanced inebriation. But, to me, it meant that I could finally go and see a band in a bar. The band of choice was one that was strictly local. They are long gone now, having never even put out a record, but they were great. For the record, they were called Ronnie Orlando and Nightflier. That night defined for me what a bar band, and by extension rock and roll, should be. They were loud and fast, but also tight, and the songs had their own kind of craft. The point of the songs, however, was not to inspire to much thought. It was music to create a mood, and to dance to. It’s tempting to say that they don’t make music like that any more, but luckily, they do. Let’s listen.
The Real Nasty: Jezebelle
As it happens, all of the bands in this post have something in common: not everything they do is pure rock pleasure. The Real Nasty is a three piece band. They rarely bring in any guest musicians, and there are not a lot of overdubs. So the arrangements are simple. But this is a band that doesn’t need a lot of help. They know their way around a rock or country groove. Jezebelle has the sound of a classic my-girl-is doing-me-wrong rocker. The emotions are right there on the table, and the performance is just right.
The Wildes: Slap-Back Mary
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The Wildes are another matter, and so is Slap-Back Mary. This is a four-piece band with guest musicians, and it’s a fuller sound. The country music of Johnny Cash is an obvious influence, and the band also has great pop instincts. Slap-Back Mary is a murder ballad done as a mid-tempo rocker with blistering guitar parts. The song has an archetypal power. Elsewhere, the band turns tender, but this is the one I can most imagine hearing in a bar.
Big Smith: Medical Emergency
Big Smith is a six-piece band. Everybody writes and plays multiple instruments, and almost everybody takes a turn at lead vocals. The resulting album could be a disjointed mess, but it’s not. Instead, it is a smorgasbord of the various music that make up the roots of rock and roll. So some songs have a country or a blues flavor, some shade into bluegrass, there is even the occasional jazzy feel. All of it is performed with gusto. When I got to the point of going to bars to see country bands, Medical Emergency is the kind of song that kept me coming back for more. Rock audiences would never accept this kind of word play, which is a shame. To do this kind of thing well, it must seem natural, like the singer just opened his mouth, and this is what came out. Only later does the listener marvel at what they just heard. And of course, it must resonate emotionally. Medical Emergency passes all of those tests, and it really cooks.
The Johnson Party: Apartment
The personnel listing on this album makes it hard to tell who is in the band and who is a guest. But here is a solid foundation of drums and bass, topped with mostly acoustic instruments. There is acoustic guitar, of course, but also mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. Apartment adds a delicious sax part to the mix. Despite the quieter instrumentation, this is a band that can still rock out when they want to. Apartment is pure pop-rock bliss. There is also a wonderful bonus, however. This is a song about how much the guy loves this girl, and that’s been done a million times. But the lyrics add specific details about her, making her a real person. This song sounds great, but it is also a beautifully realized character sketch. The fine writing carries throughout the album.
The Nadas: Hammer Down
The Nadas have a number of quieter songs, and their lyrics are on the more thoughtful side. But Hammer Down needed to be in this set. Here is a classic rock band line up of drums, bass, organ, and two electric guitars. And here are glorious guitar solos, ripping it up while the crowd dances and cheers. The lead singer’s voice reminds me of Warren Zevon on this one, and that’s not a bad thing either.