By Benjamin Leatherman
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Within the Valley music scene, few artists or songwriters enjoy the kind of universal admiration of Dead Hot Workshop's Brent Babb. So it comes as no surprise that the city's musical cognoscenti are abuzz at the prospect of seeing the band perform for the first time in several months -- and for more than two years with a full, two-guitar lineup.
The "comeback" show is set for October 16 at the Green Room.
Although Dead Hot Workshop has enjoyed more acclaim among critics and peers than commercially, Pistoleros' guitarist and longtime local vet Mark Zubia argues that such factors are unimportant. "When you come right down to it, record sales and record deals are meaningless. The mark of great music or great art isn't really that it's well-received by everybody. They're a shining example that sometimes even the best music doesn't sell."
As for the prospect of new material from Babb and Dead Hot, Peacemakers' front man Roger Clyne draws a fitting analogy. "Music people in this city in general get as excited about what Brent Babb does as people did about what Dylan was doing in the '60s. They regard it with the same kind of anticipation."
As well they should. Through its decadelong, six-album career (two with major label Atlantic and four self-released titles), Dead Hot Workshop has established itself as a singular musical collective, its esoteric stylings and anthemic twang-and-bang odysseys serving as the medium for a singularly gifted writer.
"It's a testament not only to Brent's talent but his originality that people around here don't try and copy him. In a way you really can't," says Clyne.
It's difficult to measure Babb's creative output over the years. Dead Hot drummer and leader Curtis Grippe estimates the bands' catalogue of songs in the hundreds, with an even greater number of pieces existing as works-in-progress.
"[Brent's] had so many ongoing songs through the years that it's hard to tell what was started 10 years ago and what was started 10 days ago. There's so much I don't even think he remembers," adds Grippe.
The announcement of the re-formation is the first bit of truly good news for the band after a series of disappointing personnel setbacks beginning with the departure of original guitarist Steve Larson in June 1997. Larson's defection was an unquestionable blow, but the group managed to bounce back with its most fully realized effort, its 1998 opus, Karma Covered Apple.
Operating as a trio, the band gained a boost from the album's release and performed to enthusiastic and appreciative crowds for several months in early 1998. But a relentless and often dead-end performing schedule began to slow the band's momentum, which suffered yet another blow with the loss (in June) of bassist G. Brian Scott, also late of the Pharoahs/Gas Giants.
"He pretty much said, 'I don't think I can do this anymore, and I don't want to be a burden on the band,' says Grippe. "So, it was pretty much a mutual thing, or really it even came more from him than us. But I had a great time with him all the years we played together."
The band moved into action almost immediately, recruiting Dialectrics bassist Steve Flores and former Satellite axman Chris "Whitey" Whitehouse.
Although Whitehouse guested on a handful of Karma Covered Apple tracks, his admiration for the band predated his 1995 move to Phoenix.
"I heard these guys in 1994 in Colorado at a place called Alibis. There I was in one corner and the Dead Hot Workshop fans were all on the other side. By the end of the show, I was on the other side with them," says Whitehouse laughing. "I thought they were quite unique even then, so when I got this opportunity, I joined up."
Whitehouse, who hasn't played with Satellite in more than three months, says he's left the Stephen Ashbrook-fronted band to fully commit to Dead Hot.
"I wasn't happy anymore in Satellite, and I want to have fun playing music. I don't want to get too carried away with all this other [commercial] crap. Have fun and enjoy myself, that's all I want to do. I don't think I was reaching that with [Satellite] anymore."
Considering the two groups' divergent styles, bringing in Whitehouse might seem an odd move. But even a cursory listen to the new lineup reveals otherwise. Freed from the pedestrian trappings of Satellite's material, Whitehouse brings a lyrical, almost bluesy feel, complementing Babb's intricate song structures and unconventional melodies. Listening to Whitehouse work out on such Dead Hot staples as "Hanging Out With Ray" and "A," it becomes apparent what a capable stylist he is -- as well as how much has been missing from the group's sound during its tenure as a trio.
Flores, a longtime member of the Dialectrics (who also splits time with Greg Simmons' Royal Normans), has an altogether different task, trying to match the signature melodic playing of the departed Scott while achieving a rhythmic simpatico with Grippe.
Grippe is effusive in his praise of both men: "Steve and Whitey have been really heavy in bringing their own thing to the band and what they've brought so far has been amazing."
With the extended hiatus behind them and the injection of some much needed "new blood," Dead Hot Workshop is sounding as strong as it has since its halcyon days in the early '90s.
The mix of new players has also opened up Babb's eyes to the diverse creative possibilities. "It's kind of weird not knowing what the other guys are going to play. With Steve [Larson] and Brian [Scott], I kind of knew what they were going to do because I knew their style," says Babb. "With these guys it's kind of cool because it's totally unpredictable in a way. I think it's going to make everything that much better."
Although the band has been rehearsing since Scott's departure in June, members' commitments limited them to only a couple of practices a week early on. Despite that, Grippe says the group will have 16 songs ready for its Green Room debut. Included in that number will be four new compositions ("Different Same," "Waiting for Lefty" and a pair of as-yet-untitled cuts).
Dead Hot also plans to unearth some rarely performed nuggets from its vast back catalogue as well as material from Pancho's Pilot -- a short-lived side project that featured Babb, Grippe, Gloritone bassist Nick Scropos, guitarist Charles Bond and piano songstress Emily Curtis.
The group will take six weeks off after the October 16 show to continue rehearsing with an eye toward resuming a semiregular performing schedule by late November.
"By that point, we'll have a whole slew of new tunes. Ideally, we'd like to come out and start playing all new songs," says Grippe.
Grippe says the prospect of recording a new album is the ultimate objective behind the group's renewal.
"That's what we are about. We've got to make another record," says a determined Grippe. "If we can't do anything else, we can still make good records. So we have to keep doing that."
The band is less certain where, when or how it will begin efforts on a new album. "When we pay off the last four records, we'll go back into the studio again," jokes Babb.
The career momentum that Grippe hopes to create and build on is based on nothing if not the undiminished brilliance of Babb's songcraft.
"I think the material is amazing. It's always been amazing," says Grippe. "I think this last time around we played too much and it was taken for granted. But we're going to take another shot at it. I'm confident because I know we still have something to offer."
Dead Hot Workshop is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 16, at the Green Room in Tempe, with Ghetto Cowgirl, and Red Shifter. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Peacemaker Boo-Boos: A correction and a clarification in regard to last week's feature on Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. The "by-the-book rendering of Steve Earle's 1986 hit 'Guitar Town'" was in fact a by-the-book rendering of the title track to Earle's 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
The article also stated that the band's Web site had received "550,000 hits in September." However, that figure represents the number of individual page downloads. The actual number of visitors to the site last month was closer to 100,000, according to the site's administrators Doug and Kathleen Kramer. -- Bob Mehr
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: email@example.com