Local Wire

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.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr