Satan rules. Here's proof: Grave Danger, from left, Rich Merriman, Kevin Daly and Vince Ramirez.
H.D. Duke

Danger Zone

It's late April, well after midnight, and there's something strange going on at the Arizona Roadhouse. The pleasant, somewhat upscale Tempe brewery is in a state of near chaos.

Walking in, your gaze naturally turns toward the stage. The first thing you notice is the indelible image of a cream-colored Fender Telecaster dangling preciously from on high, having been jammed through the ceiling of the club. It might've been the most shocking visage of the evening, if not for the trail of broken bottles and bloodied patrons strewn about, all drinking, dancing or hollering in various states of frenzy.

More shocking is the appearance of the band members themselves. It's not their faces, so much, but their heads, which they've just shaved onstage. The little piles of brown and gray mounded on the floor belong to some freshly shorn audience members as well.

As the feedback of the instruments fades, the bass player falls back into his amplifier, the drummer beats his kit into submission and the singer wipes the blood dripping from his arm. The audience shows its approval with another hail of empties.

The whole scene feels like A Clockwork Orange brought to the desert. But for the three-piece combo responsible for all the madness, it's just another Saturday night.

Meet Grave Danger.

On a warm weekend evening some five months later, the band's front man/guitarist Kevin Daly, bassist Rich Merriman and Truxton Records head Dave Ramsey have gathered together over a case of Budweiser in the front room of Daly's Tempe home. Drummer Vince Ramirez is conspicuously absent from the proceedings, having had to return to his native Kansas for a funeral.

Merriman is being chided mercilessly as he suggests names for a new Irish band he's planning to start up.

"What about the Sham-Rockers?" asks the burly bassist in a genial tone.

"Oh yeah, that's great, Rich," deadpans Daly with a wink.

In a Valley music scene where too many bands have tended toward a lack of showmanship, Grave Danger is an unlikely torch-bearer. With a median age of 38, the band members are (relatively) old men, playing a young man's game -- and doing it with more fire and conviction than any of their juniors.

For Daly, Grave Danger's notorious antics aren't a contrivance, even though they've become the band's calling card and an integral part of its growing appeal. "I call it destructive enthusiasm. And that's what it is. We sort of play a tag-team match," he says, pointing at Merriman. "Some nights Rich will be completely out of his mind, like a vacant robot, just crushing things. And then other nights it'll be me doing the same thing."

Fortunately, then, Ramirez's ability to wreak havoc is hampered by the fact that he's locked in behind the drum kit, right?

"Well, he's on prescription drugs now," adds Daly in a mock serious tone. "That helps, too."

The latest bit of lore to emerge from the Grave Danger camp surrounds an appearance at a unity festival in Tempe where the band members consumed a ridiculously copious amount of whiskey before taking the stage for an especially brief and chaotic six-song set. The night ended with Daly passed out on his front lawn.

"Well, it was a unity festival," says Daly. "And we didn't get in any fights with each other, so it must've worked."

Such stories, apocryphal or not, are the kind of things that have given rise to the band's fervent cult following, one that revels in the group's bacchanalian demagoguery, similar to the throng that surrounded Minneapolis pop-punks the Replacements in their heyday.

Grave Danger formed nearly two years ago, while Merriman was between gigs and working the door at the lamented Six East Lounge. Daly and Ramirez, then playing with retro-twangers Flathead, approached him about joining a side band that would showcase some of Daly's raw original material.

The group's coming out was a Sail Inn show with Portland punks the Weaklings and local trash rockers Trigger, who eventually rechristened themselves the Sonic Thrills. From the start, Grave Danger's chemistry was instantaneous and electric.

Playing mostly unannounced or last-minute gigs throughout late '98 and early '99, they found themselves with a fierce, if small, following devoted to their high-octane mutation of surf, punk, psychobilly and roadhouse.

The band went to the studio in April 1999 for a weekend's worth of drunken recording sessions, which yielded the tracks that make up the group's long-delayed, self-titled debut, set for official release on October 6.

A five-month break followed as Daly and Ramirez refocused their attention on Flathead and the release of its album Play the Good One. When Flathead leader Greg Swanholm was sidelined with a hand injury this past winter, Grave Danger decided to resume its activities, and found that its underground reputation as hard-drinking musical miscreants had spread among Valley audiences to such a degree that by the time the band re-debuted in January 2000, it was an instant local sensation.

Over the summer, Swanholm decided to put Flathead on an indefinite hiatus; Daly severed ties with the group soon after, devoting his full attention to Grave Danger and completing the mix and mastering of the new disc.

For his part, Daly notes that the band's onstage enthusiasm was always there, but the inertia for more recent shows has been coming from its ever rowdy and growing audience -- an eclectic cross-current of local-music diehards, rock culturists and regular folks looking for an excuse to act wild.

"We've always been a little crazy. The very first gig we were kicking the monitor back and forth," he says with a laugh. "It used to be that we fucked shit up, but now it's more like the crowd fucks shit up."

Asked for his opinion on the often combustible dynamic of the group's audience, Merriman pipes up: "What the fuck do I know? I black out at half the shows!"

Turning serious, he adds, "The one thing I like about our audience -- and this comes from my background in security, probably -- is that everybody's having fun. For all the ruckus, there hasn't been a single fight at one of our shows. And that's important, for people to have fun."

Whatever chaos erupts around the band, you're sure to find Daly somewhere in the middle of it. A 20-plus-year veteran of the local scene and numerous outfits -- including the Hoods, Grant and the Geezers, and Hellfire -- the silver-coifed front man seems to have finally found the right personal and creative combination with Merriman and Ramirez.

"These guys have played everything and can play anything," effuses Daly. Grave Danger's rhythm players share a remarkably similar pedigree, as both came up dedicated students of rock, metal, country and even ethnic music; Ramirez played in a series of Mexican punk bands in Kansas, while Merriman did time with Valley Irish combo the Keltic Cowboys.

"That's the thing about playing with Vince and Rich. Where these guys are coming from, they know what to do with the songs. They go for the throat," says Daly. "And with my songs, this kind of music, that's the only way to do it."

The bulk of the group's early material was the product of a number of Daly side projects (Apocalypso, Poontwang) as well as Trophy Husbands, the roadhouse/honky-tonk collective Daly also co-fronts with Nitpicker Dave Insley, and which released its debut Dark and Bloody Ground last month. More recently, Daly has penned a batch of new material specifically tailored to the well-defined Grave Danger aesthetic.

The group's forthcoming disc -- produced by Daly and Jeff Farias and released as part of a joint venture between Truxton and Rustic Records -- is a fairly accurate, if somewhat subdued, representation of the group's manic live sets.

The album filters a mix of rapier-sharp instrumentals (including a cover of the Ventures' "Running Strong") with original vocal pieces like the vaguely necrophilic "Mad": "When I hold you in my arms, you never speak, baby/That's because you been dead for a week, baby!/You drove me mad, mad, mad . . . /And I'm sad, I had to kill you baby!"

One cut that isn't on the album, but stands as the group's signature song, is "Piss on Your Grave." A plodding, menacing number delivered with the wild-eyed camp sincerity of the Cramps or Screamin' Jay Hawkins, it's become the quintessential Grave Danger booze 'n' blood anthem: "I dug a great big hole outside/About an hour before you died/Well, I been drinkin' all day/So I can piss on your grave."

While much of the imagery found in the songs is cartoonish -- especially the band's tongue-in-cheek allegiance to Satan -- there is a strong undercurrent of cleverness in the writing. A deeper inspection shows how much of the material is buoyed by Daly's own mordant wit and peculiar worldview. Ultimately, the record, like the band, is juvenile, outlandish, reactionary and coarse -- all the things good rock 'n' roll should be.

Further defining its identity will be the next Grave Danger long-player, for which some five songs have already been recorded. Among the cuts set to be included will be live staples like "Tiki Torture," "Here Kitty" and "I Got Your Number."

Another factor in the group's surging popularity has been its ability to transcend genre tags. Whether it's the farfisa rave-up of "Shut Down," the jump 'n' jive of "Gone" or the noir psychosis of "Vampire Black," the group's sound resists simple categorization.

While the music is chiefly a surf-rawk hybrid, the clever writerly touches and story songs have secured the loyalty of the country and rockabilly crowds, while the band's imagery has earned it a rabid punk following, even winning honors as Best Punk Band from the Tribune's Get Out.

The group's midterm plans are to pool the resources of various supporters -- Insley, Ramsey, etc. -- and begin touring regionally while distributing the disc nationally. In November, Grave Danger will embark on a West Coast jaunt, part of a revolving package with the Trophy Husbands.

More pressing are the dual CD release parties, the first of which will take place in Phoenix at the Emerald Lounge. The second will happen closer to the band's East Valley home base at Long Wong's on Mill.

The intimacy of Wong's has made it a second home for the group and the site of some of its most memorable moments. Grave Danger's last show at the cramped Tempe bar found the band buried amid a hail of plastic cups; bottles were banned for the evening.

"For the CD release at Wong's, I've arranged for there to be cans of Budweiser available," says Merriman. "I figure cans hurt a lot less than bottles."

"Not if the cans are full," notes Daly, from across the room.

With so much talk of drinking and debauchery, it makes one wonder where Grave Danger might be if Arizona's much-hated onstage drinking ban had not been lifted.

"That's a horrible question, man," says Daly, looking genuinely upset at the very notion. "I don't even want to think about that."

Grave Danger is set to perform a pair of CD release parties. The first is scheduled for Saturday, September 30, at the Emerald Lounge, with the Sonic Thrills. The second will take place on Saturday, October 7, at Long Wong's on Mill, with Heather Rae, and the Moonshine Boys. Showtime for both is 9 p.m.

About Town: This week boasts a clutch of rock shows worth noting or avoiding, depending on your viewpoint.

Releasing their third album this week are former Valley residents Honeybucket. The group, which relocated to San Diego in mid-'98, will celebrate the debut of the 10-song Boombox Hero with a pair of local shows. First up is a Friday, September 29, gig at Boston's in Tempe. The all-ages affair will include performances from Soulcracker and our old friends the Surf Ballistics. Showtime is 8 p.m. The next night, Honeybucket will perform as part of a Bash on Ash bill featuring Dislocated Styles, 4614 and Stupid Dummyhead. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Jam rock perennials Phish stop in town on Sunday, October 1, with a set at Desert Sky Pavilion. Since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, Phish has risen to take the mantle of the Grateful Dead as the favorites of the patchouli 'n' incense set. The amazing popularity of the group -- which last year released a six-disc, 45-song, 314-minute concert set called Hampton Comes Alive -- is undeniable. Certainly no one could have anticipated Phish's stunning popularity from its humble roots as a Vermont college band. Nor could anyone have predicted there would be a phenomenon so annoying that the passing of ol' Jerry Bear would seem like a bad thing. Showtime is 8 p.m.

American Pearl -- a self-described "straight-up, loud, heavy American rock band" -- makes a stop at the Big Fish Pub in Tempe this week. The L.A.-based quartet is touring in support of its self-titled debut, released this summer on Wind-Up Records. That's the same label, it should be noted, that parted ways with local pop punkers Pollen after the group refused A&R executives' suggestions that the band should try to change its sound to be "more Third Eye Blind, less Rocket From the Crypt."

While American Pearl has been highly touted in hard-rock circles (much of that the result of a high-profile slot on the Scream 3 soundtrack), the band's disc reveals little of note save for a few interesting guitar tones. Most of the sonic appeal is because of the efforts of the album's co-producer, former Sex Pistol Steve Jones. Jones, whose talents at the board were able to make even Buckcherry sound good, cannot help save American Pearl from being just the latest entrant in the heavily-tattooed-self-serious-hard-rock-asshole sweepstakes. As if one would need more proof, look no further than the band's official Web site bio, which tells the stirring tale of how the four lads came together at guitarist Kevin Quinn's Hollywood tattoo shop, the Quintessential Motherfucker -- a favorite ink palace of celebs including Guns n' Roses, the Cult and Marie Osmond.

Mostly, though, the band's site, like its records, is loaded with side-splitting pretentiousness, including drummer Matt Shain's assertion about the group's new record: "We see our record as a complete body of work. We don't have favorite tunes on the album. Each song shows all the emotions and moods that make us stand apart from all the other bands out right now." Right. Don'tcha get it? It's a "concept" album. Something like a tattooed version of Tommy, or Quadrophenia for Mooks.

Even better is singer Kevin Roentgen's views on the album's first single, "Free Your Mind." Characterizing it as "a whiplash-inducing rocker with a strong message," Roentgen gets all philosophical, observing, "I think that hate stems directly from one's fear, and that 'Free Your Mind' touches on that fine line between hate and fear that too often surfaces in the forms of prejudice and violence." Deep, Kev. Very deep.

Those who wish to revel in the genius of American Pearl will have their chance, as the band plays Wednesday, October 4, at the Big Fish Pub. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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