The Indigent Girls

From Finland to Fullerton with Sideswipe

My early rock-critic days were haunted by the World's Oldest Stringer, as another freelancer was nicknamed. I'd see him dragging his mossy ass around concert halls, a Marley's ghost harbinger of what I might become. Seated next to him once at an OC concert by Tom Petty and various roots rockers, I couldn't help noting he was asleep. From the second band through half of Petty's set, he was snoring—notepad-dropped-to-the-concrete gone. His review of the show was a marvel of Hilburnista cliché about the passion and reinvigorating force of rock—from a man who had slumbered through it. My cronies and I had a good laugh, but inside, a little voice was pleading, "Please, please, please don't let me end up like this."

I'm now probably as old as that guy was then, largely out of the rock-critic racket and as jaded as I can be. But damn if I don't still get excited when something great comes along. Orange guitar demigod Steve Soest (who for an old guy has an incredible knack for discovering bitchen things) turned me on to Sideswipe a couple of months ago, and I've been marveling at their music daily ever since.

The quartet has many points working against it. The name, for starters, sounds like a leftover from the Whitesnake era. They seem incapable of coming up with a promo photo that doesn't make them look like biker mamas or worse. They actually make a living playing music, which means gigging whenever they can, which means playing covers and doing the old mach schau, which never looks hip to critics and music-biz folk.

And they play rock & roll, a genre that has been sounding shagged-out for years now. But you know how every so often an act like Creedence, the Pretenders or Cheap Trick would put the old building blocks together in a way that made it all fresh again? That's Sideswipe with a vengeance.

The group's Lake Forest-based core members, guitarist Sally Landers and drummer Michelle Mangione, write pandemically contagious songs, not just with the craft-clay of sinuous melodies, hauntingly beautiful harmonies and pernicious hooks, but with living joy and pain kneaded into them as well.

They sing and play with a ferocity and adventurousness they can take to the brink of chaos and back again. Even their covers aren't safe. I mean, how many bands can throw a drum solo into the middle of a chestnut like Roger Miller's "King of the Road" and make it work? They never use a set list, and any song is fair game for morphing into a 10-minute rave-up.

"People come in assuming we're like the Bangles or the Go-Go's, and we're a little more aggressive than that live," said Sally. "We'd rather sound like the Who. If you're going to aspire to something, why not the greatest live band in the world?"

The Who and Beatles are prime influences, with dollops of the Rolling Stones; Led Zeppelin; the Beach Boys; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and more disparate—if no less wizened—sources. Sally has loved electric guitars ever since she heard one on the Lawrence Welk Show, she says.

"When I was 10, I got a big classical guitar hand-me-down," she says. "My dad had put screens on this hippie guy's house, and he got him to teach me. He showed me the chords to the Stones' 'Ruby Tuesday' and the Seeds' 'Pushin' Too Hard,' and I just played them nonstop."

Michelle's dad had a jazz band that played for fun at home, "and I just gravitated to the drums," she says. "My dad started taking me to jazz clubs, and the first time I heard Louie Bellson play, I started crying, his drumming sounded so explosive and perfect to me."

After playing in other groups (including a solo gig for Sally in Osaka, Japan), the two met a decade ago.

"We felt like we'd known each other forever, and it was so easy and natural," Michelle says. "We started talking, and then our worlds flipped upside-down."

"Everything got complicated then," Sally notes—which is one way of saying they've been romantically connected for the past decade as well.

Sideswipe isn't an all-female band by design. The other members—bassist Nancy Doyle and keyboardist Angela Riggio—are there because "they feel the music the most," Sally said. "When Michelle and I bounce off each other and take these leaps into the unknown, it has freaked some musicians out because they don't know where it's headed. But the girls in the band are cool and go with it."

The pair have supported themselves with their music for most of their decade together. "We've kept our heads above water—by an inch most of the time—but you learn to stop worrying where the next check is coming from," Michelle says. "That last-minute gig always turns up."

And they've had their small successes, with a couple of songs placed on TV shows, and they've received some radio play—in Finland.

"We got hired to go to Helsinki as a cover band, but we slipped some originals in, and people started asking for more," says Sally. "Next thing, the venue's packed for our shows, we're in magazines, and they're playing our music on the radio. They just want to rock, rock, rock and drink. We were backstage once, and a guy broke down the door to our dressing room. He was just a really drunk guy looking for the restroom."

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