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Honky-Tonk Angels

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...
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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.'"

Try to imagine another genre-driven outfit dressing up its country rock with the most incongruous get-ups for four Halloweens in a row. The first year, the Grievous Angels masqueraded as the Village People. The next year they did two shows, one dressed as Mormon missionaries and the other dressed like the Unabomber. They donned blackface in '96 to impersonate the 1976 NBA All-Stars, while last year found them as various castaways from Gilligan's Island.

While perfectly at home with the wacky label, that "No Depression" angle clearly irritates Jon Rauhouse, mostly for its Johnny-come-lately connotations.

"We need a new depression. We're not depressed enough for No Depression," he jokes before turning serious. "They had us in their magazine a few times. The whole thing is based around the Uncle Tupelo thing, and it ventured off into what people call alternative country, which to me sounds like . . ."

"A bunch of fetishists," interjects Henzerling.
"Yeah," nods Rauhouse, who's been playing this rock-cum-country thing for 20 years and can rattle off all the cycles. "No Depression magazine and those people only go back to Uncle Tupelo. Before that there was the Marshall Tucker Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, the Flying Burrito Brothers, all these bands did the same thing of adding the country and rock together and toured it. And it only got to a certain level, like this is only getting to a certain level."

"I guess we've been a part of this wave, but we never did what we were doing because of it," adds Henzerling. "When Russ and I first started the thing, it was '91 or '92. We're just doing music we like to play, and a significant number of people enjoy it."

Before moving here, Russ and bassist Mickey Ferrell had an L.A. garage-pop band called the Lawn Boys. Henzerling saw action in various rock bands from the Strangeloves to a stint as the Gin Blossoms' drummer about 10 summers ago, a role he reprised in the Blossoms' side project, the Best David Swaffords Cover Band. Jesse Navarro drummed for a band called Medicine Wheel. The country and rock camps seemed to meet under the table near the bar, probably with Dwight Yoakam or the Replacements playing on the jukebox.

The then-quartet christened itself Earl C. Whitehead and the Grievous Angels, prefixing Russ' grandpappy's name since some crafty Canadians already had that grievous moniker. Yet you can hang around the band for weeks and not hear the name Earl uttered once. In fact, you're more likely to hear someone call Russ "Ned."

Early on, Russ and Dan found a lucrative sideline with an acoustic alter ego they called Ned Beatty and the Inbreds.

"There were a lot of places that would hire us for playing at a lower volume," says Russ. "We started making more money playing lower-volume acoustic gigs at the Congo and Rhythm Room. We played outdoors on Mill Avenue for all the ASU games. It wasn't just a cover band. There were a lot of originals, too, done bluegrass style. Different songs from the Grievous Angels'."

This duality rears its heads quite vividly on the group's first release in 1995, a seven-song affair called Angels and Inbreds, which neatly splits between four electric Grievous-type songs and three acoustic Inbred-type songs. The second release, New City of Sin, and the latest also include two or three hillbillyish hoe-downs.

Henzerling credits the official addition of Rauhouse after the first CD's release as the point when the sound solidified for both groups. "If we were to have a trademark sound beside the harmonies between Russ and me, it would be the pedal steel and guitar playing off each other. John knows how to play banjo, mandolin, Hawaiian guitars--he just adds a lot of cool sounds."

Typically, the first night Rauhouse showed up to play with the band, there was tremendous infighting and cussing between Russ and then-drummer John Fogarty under way. Fogarty's designed the latest CD cover, offering proof that a tongue-lashing from Russ needn't be fatal.

By 1995, the group had already played South by Southwest and was snapped up by the newly launched Bloodshot Records from Chicago, a relationship that continues on through to Miles on the Rail, for which Bloodshot boasts presales of 1,500.

The Angels seem surprised by how well they've been accepted in the other 46 states they've played. A track from New City of Sin, "Carolina Bound," got major rotation on country stations in both of the Carolinas (presumably because of the title) and in the Midwest. Stranger still, "Dear John," a track off the local Hayden Ferry compilation Jukebox Cantina Combo Platter, went to number eight in Norway.

"We're also number 17 in Bosnia," cackles Russ. "Number one was Aqualung by Jethro Tull."

Actually, everyone seems to have an affinity for shuffle train beats without the swing, except for this ol' Valley. "We just played Portland for North by Northwest, and it was packed out into the street. There were people singing our songs. The same with New Yorkers, too," says Dan before remarking, "we've never really conquered this town."

Airplay is virtually nonexistent for a country band, but when someone at KDKB played them recently, they were called the Gravy-ous Angels. "'Grievous' seems to be the most misspelled word in the English language," Mickey says. "There's a bar in Austin that spelled it G-R-E-V-U-S. Do you think it was because they ran out of letters?"

"It's kind of a letdown when someone spells our name right now," quips Russ.
Given the band's work schedules and other projects, like the February debut release of the Pharaohs (the Robin Wilson-led band Henzerling also plays guitar in) and all the touring to follow, two weeks is about as extended as any Grievous Angels tour can get. But given the group's innate sense of the absurd, its members look forward to what most people would dismiss as worst-gig scenarios.

Some of Grievous' best performances spring from the most catastrophically mismatched bills. There was that rapturous response the band engendered playing with a militant lesbian group in San Francisco. Then there was the free beer night in Norman, Oklahoma. Actually, that wasn't so great because the club was so crowded on account of the free beer the band couldn't load out its equipment and had to suffer through a mediocre world beat group's interminable set.

All the Angels agree their best-ever gig was a punk-rock show in St. Louis. "Russ flipped off the punks while we were setting up to ensure they'd hate us," says Dan, laughing. "But we had no cares. We giggled our asses off, jumping around like a bunch of sweat hogs. We started the set with 'Bodies' and went from there. They loved us."

What's not to love? After all, they played the Sex Pistols faithfully. With pedal steel!

The Grievous Angels' CD-release party is scheduled for Friday, September 25, at the Arizona Roadhouse and Brewery in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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