This rockabilly revival stuff can be tricky. For evidence, all one has to do is look at the careers of the Stray Cats and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Both groups came strong out of the box, knocked off a couple of memorable opening albums, and then floundered into semi-obscurity while trying to figure out, okay, once you revive the music, what do you do next?
The obvious answer -- nothing -- apparently didn't occur to them. Rockabilly is fine enough without any update tinkering, and the possible trick to a long and happy rockabilly revivalist career is to forget the revivalist part, focus on the rockabilly and have yourself a fine old time.
On the evidence of their debut CD, Minneapolis' Vibro Champs seem to have absorbed that lesson. Or maybe they just haven't been around long enough to get caught up in the throes of artistic quandary. Since that could well be waiting for them down the road, now may be the time to catch them while -- like about every other act in the Western Hemisphere -- they're passing through Houston en route to Austin and South by Southwest.
The backgrounds of the various members of the Vibro Champs don't seem to lean very obviously in the rockabilly direction -- bassist Bill Keefe has toured with an R&B group headed by Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown's drummer, and guitarist/vocalist/Vibro Champs organizer Dave Wolfe is a product of a handful of California punk bands -- but Wolfe insists that there's rockabilly to be found in his past if you just look for it. "X, Billy Zoom -- all the solos were rockabilly. Plus groups like the Cramps; these were all punk bands that had rockabilly roots," he says. "It was the Dead Kennedys doing 'Viva Las Vegas.' It was Fear doing 'Beef Bologna.'"
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Well, maybe, although with the exception of Zoom there was a lot more parody than passion to be found in the bands Wolfe points to as inspiration. And the Vibro Champs' own take on rockabilly, while far from deadly serious, has a lot more happy bar band buzz to it than smirking punk stance. Basically, it's just fun stuff with a lively beat and -- something very non-punkish -- considerable technical skill. Songs such as "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Cold Cold River" have that sloppy feel that comes only with long practice. And the band's surf-inspired instrumentals -- okay, so they're not rockabilly purists -- are far from casual bashes.
All this has made the Vibro Champs fairly hot stuff in the frozen northland of Minnesota, and even if Texas is a little more rockabilly savvy, and demanding, these guys look like they can handle it. It's at least worth a listen to find out.
-- Mitchell J. Shields
The Vibro Champs play Saturday, March 18 at Emo's Alternative Lounge along with the Lone Star Trio. Call 523-8503 for info.
* Sonny Landreth at Rockefeller's, Friday, March 17.
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