The common wisdom among members of the Valley's rockabilly, blues, roots and country music scenes last week was that some band in heaven just picked up one hell of a standup bass player.
Longtime Valley musician Bruce Hamblin died September 18 of liver failure. He was 45.
Hamblin was best known as the bass player for the Varmits, a Phoenix rockabilly band that enjoyed regional fame in the early through mid-'80s. The Varmits were the quintessential Americana outfit, lacing their rockabilly with thick strains of roots rock, traditional country, borderland Mexican folk and hometown Duane Eddy twang.
The band was known for slamming songs into high gear when its guitarist took a solo, with Hamblin furiously slapping his bass as the tempo went into overdrive. Hamblin was also quite a showman with a number of old-school rockabilly stage tricks up his sleeve, like spinning his bass in 360s as he played it, or leaning it over so he could stand on its side in a precarious pose.
After the Varmits, Hamblin played for numerous other local acts, most notably the Cowbillys. His last band was Trio Grande, which broke up after Hamblin became too ill to continue. Trio Grande's last gig--and the last time Hamblin performed in public--was a New Year's Eve set at Fatso's Pizza.
"Anytime anybody needed a good upright bass player, Bruce was the one they would call," says local country singer Elgin MacMillan. "He was the guy you wanted to get on your side of the stage if you could."
Hamblin lived in a south Phoenix neighborhood where the roads are still dirt, and he collected vintage cars. He was a silversmith by trade. In addition to bass, Hamblin played the piano, bassoon, guitar and saxophone.
"He was a real eclectic man and musician," says Mario Moreno, a local guitar player who played with Hamblin in both the Varmits and Trio Grande, and who had been friends with Hamblin since 1973. "He was able to appreciate a lot of different sounds, and that made him a strong songwriter."
Moreno says Hamblin started off playing piano for the Varmits, but switched to bass after he bought his first standup through an ad in a small Mormon newspaper.
Hamblin was awaiting a liver transplant when he died. "Bruce was one of those guys that always bounced back, just a real tough individual," Moreno says. "He was on the list [for a transplant], and so we all had hope. This is a real, real hard thing for a lot of people to take."
A tribute concert for Hamblin is scheduled for October 6 at the Rhythm Room. The tentative lineup at press time included MacMillan, Moreno, Colin Winski, Kenny Love, Pat Moore, Johnny Fingers, Kevin Dailey, and members of Flathead and the Grievous Angels (testament to Hamblin's impact on two generations of local musicians).
"Bruce was the ultimate roots artist," says Rhythm Room manager Bob Corritore. "He was into this music long before it was hip. For him, it came from the heart."
It's a long shot, but maybe there's a Coda reader out there who was in the U.K. recently, heard a Slingbacks song called "Lions and Cars" on the radio with a line about ". . . this dreary desert town" and wondered to himself, "What desert?"
Well, this desert. The one all around us. The song was penned by Beat Angels lead singer and notable rock noir songwriter Brian Smith, who has a total of four songs to his credit on the Slingbacks recording No Way Down that's due for U.S. release in January. "Lions and Cars" is currently charting in the low 40s. Meanwhile, Smith says, "I still can't afford a cup of coffee."
Oops. A couple of small missteps in our music coverage of late. No. 1 is that the photo image attributed to Acumen in a recent article about industrial music actually came to us courtesy of Cubanate.
No. 2 is that the drummer for the Suicide Kings was misidentified in the "Best Country/Americana Band" write-up in the Best of Phoenix supplement. Chris Olsen no longer plays with the band. Al Delantero now drums for the Kings.
David Holthouse is now wired.
The Web site is Mothership. The address is http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/extra/holt/index.html. The options are myriad (multigenre criticism, archives, rave data, freak links).