Men in Black

The Hollisters sound like Johnny Cash, and John Sebastian sounds like a jug band

There's good news and bad news about Houston-based roots rockers THE HOLLISTERS, who play the Crazy Horse on Sunday night. I love this band, and I'm definitely in their corner; I want them to grow and mature and become my favorite group, which isn't out of the question if they do grow and mature. They've got a unique, idiosyncratic style, even if the reference points are a bit transparent; they write solid, memorable songs with intelligent lyrics; their overall sound is uniformly sinewy; and the chops are more than capable and self-assured without being showoff-y or retro-by-the-numbers.

The Hollisters' 1997 debut, The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, was largely and undeservedly ignored. A fine square one full of choice American country-rock from which to launch a career, it had one glaring deficiency: they tried so hard to sound like Johnny Cash it was almost embarrassing. Lead singer Mike Barfield emulated everything about the Man in Black, from the often comic baritone to the hesitant, quavering phrasing, while guitarist Eric Danheim copped Luther Perkins' ticktock style to perfection on many songs.

What's up with these Texas bands and their guileless odes to their heroes, anyway? While the Hollisters equal Cash, Junior Brown equals Ernest Tubb, Wayne Hancock equals Hank Williams, the Derailers equal Buck Owens, Dale Watson equals Merle Haggard, etc., I love 'em all, and I love everyone they emulate. I just wonder why they can't be a little less obvious about it. Subtlety, babe-ski! You oughta try it sometime.

Back to the Hollisters: their new album, Sweet Inspiration, is wholly wonderful. I sat in my sunshiny yard swilling beer with it twice last weekend, and it made me feel real purty inside both times. It's the kind of music that's so pointedly brimming with the spirit of Americana, wide-open spaces and sweet freedom that it almost made me feel like taking down the Jolly Roger from the flagpole and hoisting the Stars 'n' Stripes. You can still hear the omnipresent spirit of Cash all over it, but it feels more like inspiration than emulation this time. Inspiration is tougher and more contemporary than its predecessor. It rocks hard; guitar tones raunch out, tempos escalate, hooks come flying at you every which way. Fuckin' beautiful, really.

But there's another problem now: near-plagiarism. The opening "Fishin' Man" is a dead ringer for Doug Kershaw's "Louisiana Man." "Thrill of the Ride" bears more than a passing resemblance to Waylon Jennings' "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean." Look, guys: if you're gonna cop an old tune, you ought to at least make sure that song wasn't a big hit that your target audience is gonna recognize.

Right now, the Hollisters are probably reading this and calling for Daddy's walnuts on a platter with an ice-cold Lone Star beer to wash those bad boys down (Texas musicians are so silly and sensitive that way). But guys, take a look at what I'm saying and blame yourselves instead of the messenger. Play those tunes back to back (as I did, just to be sure), and I defy you to contradict what I'm saying. This kind of rip-off sucked back when Led Zeppelin was doing it to Willie Dixon, and it still sucks now.

The Hollisters, in my regard, are better than this. They needn't stoop to expropriation or imitation because they have so much without it. I hope (and suspect) these incidents were the result of subconscious sway rather than premeditated thievery. Either way, Sweet Inspiration is going to set in my CD player for quite a spell because, all critiques and reservations aside, I really am quite fond of this album and look forward to watching this band come fully into their own someday. Now git!

JOHN SEBASTIAN, who plays the Pond on Sunday night, covered himself in glory as the front man of the Lovin' Spoonful in the mid-'60s and then went on to make quite a serious dork of himself for many years, which left an unfortunate and lasting impression. Who can forget his insufferable, tuneless performance at Woodstock, where he was the living embodiment of everything loathsome about the hippie scene? Come on, admit it—didn't you just want to bitch-slap him silly in those tie-dyes and leather fringes he wore, as he whined, "Faaar out, maaan!" to the unwashed thousands?

Sebastian mercifully disappeared from sight for a number of years before resurfacing in 1976 with the vomit-cutesy hit "Welcome Back," the theme from the Welcome Back Kotter TV show. At this point, capital punishment would have seemed completely justified.

In the wake of these atrocities, it was easy to forget the Spoonful, along with such fine company as the Byrds and the Rascals, were among the most remarkable American bands of the '60s. Hits like "Summer in the City," "Daydream," "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," "Nashville Cats," "Rain on the Roof," "Do You Believe in Magic," "Darling Be Home Soon" and "Younger Girl" helped da Yew-Ess-Ay hold its rock & roll head high during the British Invasion. Before that, Sebastian had been a fixture on the early '60s folkie scene in Greenwich Village, a contemporary of such heavy company as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Richie Havens. A respected man.

Post-Kotter, Sebastian seemed to vanish completely from the Earth, and no one complained too much. So it's heartening to report that his new album, Chasin' Gus' Ghost, is the best thing he's done in, well, more than 30 years. A traditional jug-band album ("Gus" is jug-band godfather Gus Cannon; many Spoonful tunes were jug-band-based) featuring friends like Geoff Muldaur, Jimmy Vivino and John Simon, the sound is, as Sebastian once sang, "dirty and gritty"—a far cry from the hippie folk-rock and spineless pop that hallmarked Sebastian's post-Spoonful years. He plays and sings like he really means it this time out; the result is at once down-home bluesy and big-time fun—as is all good jug-band music. Uhhhhh . . . welcome back, John.

Laguna Beach's WILL BRADY has a new CD out. Boxwork is a gorgeous collection of solo instrumental guitar workouts, pretty much a full 180 from his last album, the rock-, blues- and jazz-based Caveman Brain. Brady tackles a number of originals and stylistically disparate covers ranging from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" to the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do Is Dream" and Dylan's "Buckets of Rain." The music is introspective, contemplative and meditative, a lush and calming showcase for Brady's spirituality and his sterling musicianship. Guitar players will marvel at both his enviable technique and his on-the-spot penchant for heady improvisation. A job well done, indeed.

The Hollisters play at the Crazy Horse Steakhouse & Saloon, 71 Fortune Dr., Irvine, (949) 585-9000. Sun., 9 p.m. $5; John Sebastian performs at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2400. Sun., 3 p.m. $25-$50.Boxwork is available for $15 from Will Brady, P.O. Box 9065, Laguna Beach, CA 92652, or e-mail willbrady@aol.com.
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