also appearing: The D-Rays Rumba Café, Columbus, Ohio – April 27, 2014
Many years have passed, and still no band on Earth makes me as unreasonably happy as does Chapel Hill, NC’s mighty surf/garage rock/rockabilly institution Southern Culture on the Skids. Last night, after what I was informed had been a six-year absence from Central Ohio and what had felt to me like much more, the band returned with a sweaty, triumphant, fairly classic set at the charmingly intimate Rumba Café in downtown Columbus. I set up stakes at my traditional stage left position, at the very front of the crowd, close enough to Mary Huff that she could’ve easily whacked me in the face with the neck of her bass were I to get out of line. All this is as it must be. The energy level emanating from the stage and volleyed back from the crowd in this tight space was probably as high as I’ve ever seen at an Ohio S.C.O.T.S. show. I could have predicted the way things would go, but it was still a pleasant surprise. This is, by its nature, a singularly infectious sort of music that tends to take control of a listener’s body and vocal cords in wonderful, borderline insidious ways. As a born metal fan to whom head banging is second nature, I move more than most at a non-metal show, and I admit I’m pretty damned conspicuous on the happy occasion of any S.C.O.T.S. show. I just let myself go. With this music you kinda have to. If you are passively watching Southern Culture on the Skids from the sidelines with nary a bobbing head or tapping toe or base twitch in the hips, I recommend you check your breath on the nearest reflective surface. In my highly non-medical opinion, you might be suffering from death.
I am never quite so evangelical as when I’m discussing music, of course, but for all the folks I’ve dragged to S.C.O.T.S. concerts over the years, I don’t remember any of them complaining afterward. Chances are that you know of this band even if you don’t know them. They played the beach party scene in I Know What You Did Last Summer (that song, “Strangest Ways”, is ironically a favorite I’ve still never heard live), and their music was prominently featured in both Super Troopers and Beavis & Butt-head Do America. They are the quintessential hard-working live act who got a shot or two but never quite crossed over into serious mainstream success, then receded only slightly back into a life spent burnishing the legend as an ace touring band. A S.C.O.T.S. live show is truly something to behold, a communal celebration of the primal power of rock and roll – kitschy and countrified yes, but never less than potent, and, oftentimes so much more. Even if you have no hair to let down, in a S.C.O.T.S. crowd, guess what? It’s coming down. The band took the stage at the Rumba to wild cheers and very loud cries of “Welcome Back!” I should probably neither confirm nor deny that it was I who screamed the aforementioned welcome – um, repeatedly – but I can confirm that I wasn’t the only one.
This is a band that routinely comes out on stage wearing overalls, John Deere caps, Hawaiian shirts, wifebeaters, or, in Mary’s case, glittery miniskirts and bouffant wigs. They take themselves with minimal seriousness but rock like nobody’s business. It’s a nifty dichotomy. Rick Miller grew up worshipping at the altar of surf rock pioneers Link Wray and Dick Dale and his guitar work honors their memories, striking a perfect balance between tuneful, tasty and frantic, equally invested in big riffs and dexterous, exciting, exploratory solos that only ever drag when his natural enthusiasm pushes the needle just a little too far into the red. His solos feel effortless, and are so expressive that I would liken him as a contemporary to ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, which coming from me is high praise. Dave Hartman, with his upright drum kit that used to contain among its percussion pieces a tall ash tray and still utilizes lots of cowbell, is a disarmingly tasteful and nuanced drummer for music that so often requires him to be a jet pack in full blast off mode. Mary Huff is one of the best bassists I’ve ever seen at not just holding down but enhancing a groove. At the Rumba, her bass was delightfully prominent in the mix, and the band at its height sounded like a rumbling party train on a blissful trip to nowhere in particular.
I need to beg your indulgence here, dear reader. I realize this is supposed to be a concert review, but almost any discussion on Southern Culture on the Skids I’m involved with invariably becomes as much about me, and my cavalcade of terrific memories, as about them. I figure, why fight it? Our relationship has been a long and winding one, uncomplicated and highly rewarding. They come to town, I go to them, we both rock our butts off, and everyone goes home smiling. When I was much younger, fresh out of college and still living in Northeast Tennessee, the S.C.O.T.S. carnival came to town several times a year, and I built up a fearsome resume of attendance that ended up dwarfing my other concertgoing efforts, which were not exactly bush league themselves. My memories from extreme front, stage left, are legion. How I sat with Ms. Huff and a handful of hangers-on at a table after their set at Asheville, NC’s Grey Eagle, casually talking about the crucial role of bass in rock and roll, and what a thankless job it often is. How, at an outdoor festival in Knoxville, TN, I had her sign the sleeve of my replica Steelers jersey, which a drunk girl in the crowd later tried to purchase off my back mid-show. How I carried the cardboard insert card of their Halloween-themed “Zombified” EP to several shows until I had it signed by all three members. How I also own the remains of two of Dave Hartman’s drumsticks, three setlists – one from Chris Bess’ final tour with the band and another signed by Rick at what I believe was their final show at Columbus’ Little Brothers venue – and a Dirt Track Date poster announcing their show at Knoxville’s venerable Bijou theater, which I brazenly and impulsively stole off the bulletin board of McKay’s Used Books on my way out of town the next day.
The pinnacle for me would come at a show in Newport, KY several years ago, when I got called out of the crowd to play fabled (in S.C.O.T.S. lore) Mexican wrestler El Santo on stage during the show’s finale. The mask transformed me, which is, after all, what masks are made to do. I lumbered and flailed across the stage as the Mexicali surf raged and roiled behind me, windmilling, go-go dancing (after a fashion), posing like a garage sale Hulk Hogan, and at various points when the song would stop for my input, exclaiming my name to the crowd with ground-shaking timbre and gravitas before the band kicked back in and the song (and I) flared up again. The only real difference between my one-off performance as El Santo and how I normally act at extreme front, stage left was that I was on stage with the band and wearing a luchador mask, my final wisps of self-consciousness having evaporated in the heat of Southgate’s stage lights. It was one of the best moments of my life, one I coasted on for weeks and weeks, though a moment, sadly, witnessed by only several hundred Cincituckian revelers and exactly none of my friends. I had driven to this show on my own. I walked back to my parked car alone, though quite a few people called out “Santo” in my direction. I drove home in silence, my thoughts a cyclone, as is my wont. It was sweet much more than bittersweet, but so many things had changed since I moved to Ohio, and this was emblematic of a new status quo, one I’d struggled to reject and then struggled equally to embrace. I don’t exactly know, but that may well have been the last S.C.O.T.S. show I saw before last night. If the old me, the one who first saw Southern Culture on the Skids at a hole in the wall named The Casbah in Johnson City, TN and left that show, 2.5 hours later, transformed, could’ve known what was ahead of him, he would’ve been so excited. I saw them so many times at The Casbah, uniformly great nights that honestly bleed together a little, but I’ll never forget that first time, the same way I’ll never forget being El Santo.
That first time, preserved in the amber of my mind, was almost 18 years and, I’m forced to estimate, 35 shows ago now.
The Rumba Café is a little storefront on Summit Street tucked into the edge of residential living in downtown Columbus, not too far from where the Columbus Crew plays soccer. Parking is problematic (I made four circuits of the block before I found a spot I could consider shoehorning into), and the club itself is dark, cramped and basic, unfussy to a degree that is damn near endearing. I knew from social media that the show, promoted as an early night to boot, had already sold out, and I also knew from experience that extreme front, stage left doesn’t just happen because you wish real hard. So I arrived soon after doors opened and immediately found my spot, which fit like a comfortable shoe. The whole operation ran like DIY clockwork, time flew by, and I only moved from extreme front, stage left long enough to grab a few pints of beer. The openers, The D-Rays from Athens, Ohio, were a sort of Northern Culture, if you will, a decent energy all-instrumental garage rock trio featuring a female bassist and a guitarist that may have lacked Miller’s finesse and chops but made up for it with guile and neat ideas. Southern Culture is a blue collar band to its bones. I’ve always enjoyed watching them mull about the stage before taking it in earnest, tuning guitars and chatting with the crowd. There is the unspoken feeling that a S.C.O.T.S. show is populated by old friends and new, most of them unintroduced, but all quite neighborly. A band with this much history has friends in every town, and, indeed, Mary caught my eye as she plugged in and gave me a broad smile of recognition. As the Rumba Café filled in behind me and showtime approached, I found myself struck by how much it reminded me of the old Casbah. I steeled myself for something special.
The band rolled to life behind the low-rumbling bass and sinister guitar lines of “Skullbucket”, an instrumental from 1995’s seminal Dirt Track Date, the S.C.O.T.S. album I first fell in love with. This segued into the upbeat crowd pleaser “Nitty Gritty”, sung by Mary, and then into standout DTD track “Voodoo Cadillac”, establishing a deep groove that would be sustained, at varying tempos and intensity, over the next 100 minutes both in spirit and practice. Highlights included bouncy early single “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork”, the pummeling “Mojo Box”, the wistful, lovely “Just How Lonely”, eerie concert rarity “Rumors of Surf” (which gave Mary’s considerable pipes a workout against the clamor of guitar and drums), and the propulsive “Shotgun”, an evergreen banger which seems freshly shot from its titular weapon every time. Dancing girls culled from the audience invaded the stage and tossed Little Debbie snack cakes to the crowd during “Camel Walk”, and then fried chicken during “Eight Piece Box”, as has been custom since Casbah days and far earlier. It was all great fun. As much as any band I’m aware of, S.C.O.T.S. deftly balances the requirements of being rock solid technicians with the joy inherent in simply being good players. Rick and Mary thanked the crowd several times, and we roared our acclimation in kind. I assume there must have some kind of reason for the band’s absence from town for so many years (the closing of Little Brothers was quite a blow), and maybe some residual doubt as to how they might be received upon their return. The crowd was in full throated agreement from the first note to the last, and seemed to propel the band ever forward. That synergy, when you’re part of it, is one of the very best things about being a fan. The main set ended with a raucous version of “Daddy was a Preacher but Mama was a Go-Go Girl”. The encore began mere seconds later, as there was really nowhere for the band to regroup offstage within club walls. We sang ourselves hoarse to the mutant gospel of “The Great Atomic Power”, then thrilled to the relentless, towering surf instrumental “Jack the Ripper”. It was a wonderful night. Smiles all around, on stage and off. This had been a long time coming.
As a veteran S.C.O.T.S. fan, I tend to indulge a couple of very specific daydreams every time a new concert is imminent, and sometimes when they aren’t. In one, I practice my band introduction to the audience, after which I always jump off stage and directly into my spot at extreme front, stage left as Rick roars into “Shotgun” behind me. In the other, I am El Santo again, the giddy masked bull in the china shop, fueled by breakneck music. Sadly, El Santo did not make an appearance at the Rumba. His absence was noted, but not especially lamented. The show seemed like it was on a pretty tight schedule anyway, likely due to Sunday night residential considerations, and the band did a marvelous job powering through 105 minutes of good time surfabilly in spite of it all. I had had the El Santo daydream once or twice before I ever knew it was a real possibility – I’m a fairly big guy who can be the epitome of goofy when I decide to commit thoroughly – though I’ve had it regularly since, often when there isn’t even a show in the Midwest, let alone on the horizon. I have the intro daydream each new time without fail, even though nobody introduced them at the Rumba and I’ve only seen it done once or twice otherwise. I just think it’d be a good idea, to lend some weight and sense of occasion to a show that, in my opinion, is always an occasion. I hereby volunteer my services as emcee in perpetuity, as long as I then get to see the show from extreme front, stage left. Yesterday I practiced my “welcome back” intro in the shower.