Honky-Tonk Angels

The Valley's longest-twanging C&W/rock outfit charms a third time with a no-nonsense new CD

As yet another scalp-searing summer draws to a close, the local gentry at Casey Moore's seem suitably pacified with drink and the promise of cooler temperatures just around the corner. That cheery notion isn't enough to straighten out the furrowed brow of the Grievous Angels' figurehead, Earl C. Whitehead.

Tonight he's more like Russell Redface (incidentally, his true Christian name; more about that later). Crank case in point, Russ has just been to Zia Record Exchange on University, where he spotted a copy of the group's not-yet-released third CD Miles on the Rail, already on sale with a used sticker affixed to it.

The Angels live in constant dread of Whitehead's unbridled temper, not because of any inherent danger to their own safety but rather because of the Barney Fife nature of these tirades and the embarrassment that surely and swiftly follows. Like that infamous Mayberry lawman, Russ has narrowed his inquisition down to two right-neighborly suspects.

"I only gave our CD to Chris Caston and Brian Griffith from Dead Hot Workshop," Russ says, grinning, while rubbing his hands together. He seems to be leaning toward Griffith as prime suspect, believing "Griffith sold it for cash and bought a Whopper with the money." Clearly, this scenario is preferable to accusing his bandmates' moms and dads of doing the same thing, although the night is still young.

Guitarist Dan Henzerling, who also plays with Griffith in the Pharaohs, ambles slowly to his defense, while Jon Rauhouse, the eldest Grievous Angel and the prevailing voice of logic within the group, argues "that could be someone from Zia getting the one that came in the mail." That deductive reasoning sounds good enough to temporarily silence Russ' accusatory tongue.

Explaining this strange dynamic in the group, Whitehead himself admits, "My big mouth will inevitably get us in trouble, with either the sound man or one of the bands we play with."

"We're still trying to work Russ on the 'don't piss off the sound man' angle," offers Henzerling. Although Russ proudly proclaims that no one's yet kicked his ass, it's because those sound men find it infinitely easier just to push that "suck" button on the board and drown out Russ' big mouth with feedback.

You won't need to press the suck button once while perusing this new record, admittedly far too good to be languishing several dollars below list price six days before its release date. The group has drawn raves from everyone from the Chicago Sun Times to Billboard because such jollification in a C&W rock outfit is a rarity, what with the ever-expanding alternative country playing field teeming with morose No Depression bands. But the group's Gram Parsons-derived name should clue you in that it isn't like those happy galoots knocking into one another on regular country radio, either.

Before we could begin our lengthy discourse on why Grievous Angels are not like all the others, our bartendress inquires of the band, "Do you play original songs through big rockin' guitars?" This winning line of questioning snags everyone's immediate admiration until the band realizes she's just reading a press quote from their clippings packet, conveniently plunked on our table.

"No, really, are you guys famous or something?" she asks Russ.
"We're the Revenants," he replies to rounds of laughter.
Why that's such a hoot, for those of you not in the know, is that although members of both local groups mine the same C&W territory, they do so with decidedly different shovels. Both sets of musicians come originally from rock backgrounds and arrived at the decadence of country music quite naturally. But where the Revenants grappled with Hank Sr.-styled gloom and came out gloomier, the Grievous Angels managed to maintain a perpetually good mood.

Compare how the Revenants attack Nick Cave's "Christina the Astonishing" in the sullen manner it was originally intended while the Angels transform Tom Waits' dirgelike "Cold Cold Ground" from its chain-and-pulley instrumentation into a larky shuffle.

"That song is way too chipper for the way it was originally recorded," chuckles Henzerling. "As far as our lyrics go, we tend to put happy beats to them. Russ and I write bummed-out lyrics but just don't feel like playing them that way."

As the band's chief writers, Dan and Russ mask a fatalistic world view behind a sunny disposition with the same skill that John Fogerty employed on "Bad Moon Rising." And like the Louvin Brothers, the Grievous Angels sound happiest ruminating over the wages of sin, a cockeyed optimism only betrayed by the occasional tremor in Russ' voice.

Only the fiddle players on the Titanic can match the Angels for unflappability. You'd think singing about having your permanent mailing address changed from a burning house to eternal damnation would betray a touch of bitterness. Naw, the Angels make it all sound like a glorious state-fair hay ride.

"If we were playing a song that was all serious or moody, people would say that's a bunch of bullshit," suggests Whitehead. "People can point out all the stupid-ass things we've done out in public, like the time Jesse painted his ass blue in Prescott, and say, 'These guys aren't like that at all.'"

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