Roots rockin' weekend

Roots rock still packs them in

James Mathus, Commander Cody, Lustre Kings play in region

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 31, 2001) – Fads come and go, but classic American roots music is firmly entrenched as the default soundtrack of American nightclubs. It’s a roots-rockin’ cornucopia in area clubs this weekend, with performances by the Lustre Kings, Commander Cody, and James Mathus here in the Berkshires, and a host of blues and folk artists in the greater region.

Perhaps the most surprising thing on first listening to National Antiseptic (Mammoth) by James Mathus and His Knockdown Society is how little the album sounds like Mathus’s better-known group, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. But Mathus is the first to admit that the Zippers’s hyper-hybrid, ragtime-swing sound was an accident. “My wife has this great old-fashioned jazz voice, so I just put music to that and it took off,” Mathus has explained elsewhere.

With the Knockdown Society, which kicks off its national tour at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394)on Saturday, November 3, at 9, Mathus, a native of Mississippi, returns to his true love – the American roots-rock on which he was raised, including soul, blues, boogie, rockabilly, gospel and r&b. “National Antiseptic” sounds like a tour through early rock styles reminiscent of The Band’s Moondog Matinee. Indeed, one of the original songs even adopts a Band album title (Rock of Ages).

Helping Mathus out on the album are Cody and Luther Dickinson, the second-generation roots-rock princes known as the North Mississippi All-Stars, as well as their father, legendary Southern soul producer Jim Dickinson, who co-produced National Antiseptic with Mathus. The result is the sound of a Southern juke joint circa 1964.

The newly-renovated Old Egremont Club in South Egremont celebrates its grand reopening on Friday, November 2, with a show by the Lustre Kings, the Capital District-based early rock ‘n’ roll outfit. As heard on the group’s recent album, Once a King, Always a King (Cacophone), the Albany-based band is more than just another rockabilly revival outfit churning out versions of popular Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry tunes.

The Lustre Kings dig deep into early rock and related styles, steering away from a greatest-hits oldies approach, preferring to connect the dots among such unlikely musical bedfellows as Conway Twitty, Peanuts Wilson, Link Wray and Duke Ellington (they even render a surf-guitar version of the Duke’s “Caravan”).

Lead singer and guitarist Mark Gamsjager has a natural affinity for the music and delivers a rootsy twang on his electric Gretsch guitar. Standup bassist Pete Toigo and drummer Russ Cashdollar provide just the right swinging accompaniment to give the band a vintage feel, as if they just walked out of Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios yesterday.

For the Old Egremont date, former Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen vocalist Billy C. Farlow will join the band.

Speaking of Commander Cody, the current version of the group kicks off the weekend at Club Helsinki on Friday, November 2, at 9. Founded in 1968, the group was unusual from the start, with a piano-playing leader (George Frayne, aka the Commander), three guitarists, a fiddle-playing saxophonist, pedal steel guitarist, and four lead singers – hardly your typical roots-rock lineup.

Nevertheless, since then the group has mined early rock and roots music for its unique sound, mixing honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, Cajun, swing and party music and touring with groups as diverse as the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and the Eagles, along the way scoring radio hits like “Too Much Fun,” “Lost in the Ozone,” and the top-10 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

Helsinki also features a few other rootsy acts mid-week. On Wednesday, November 7, the Barra MacNeils, a Cape Breton folk-fusion band, brings its lively blend of Nova Scotia-influenced Celtic music and rock to the club. The group’s new CD, Racket in the Attic (Barratone), finds the Celtic inside the Fleetwood Mac hit “Second Hand News,” as well as exploring more traditional Irish numbers and giving them a bit of rock-fueled juice.

And next Thursday, a curious double-bill at Helsinki features Northampton alternative roots-rockers Drunk Stuntmen and second-generation folk royalty The Mammals. Both groups are improvisation-minded, and there has been talk of the two joining forces to see what happens when they mix and match their styles.

Celtic, blues and folk acts also abound in the greater region this weekend. Fiddler Natalie MacMaster, another Cape Breton musician who has made it big on the Celtic scene, performs at the Egg in Albany on Saturday, November 3, at 8. Contemporary blues singer-songwriter Robert Cray plugs in at the Egg on Thursday, November 8, at 8.

Blues singer-songwriter Chris Smither is at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Friday, November 2, at 7, and blues guitarist Ronnie Earl follows Smither at the Iron Horse on Saturday at 7.

Legendary Scottish singer Andy M. Stewart joins forces with Irish guitarist Gerry O’Beirne on Tuesday, November 6, at 7 at the Iron Horse in Northampton, touring behind Stewart’s new CD, Donegal Rain (Green Linnet).

For pop wiseguys They Might Be Giants, it’s always sophomore year. The wise fools of pop are at Pearl Street in Northampton on Sunday at 8.

Note: The “Rave Review” concert by reedman Dick Johnson that was to have taken place at Searles Castle on Saturday night has been cancelled due to illness.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 2, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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