Even Old Englishmen Still Get Wood
Until recently, LEVI DEXTER would have been a prime candidate for the Where Are They Now? files on VH1. Inactive for the past few years due to the typical business problems that plague musicians, Dexter is back in time to harvest the fruit of the rockabilly revival. Among the first generation of pre-Stray Cats neo-rockabillies, Dexter was a contemporary of such '70s revivalists as Robert Gordon, Billy Zoom, Johnny Legend and Shakin' Stevens. And although Dexter could never stake any claim to the testosterone-wonder vocal chords of a Gordon, or the razzle-dazzle guitar work of a Zoom, he remains a rockabilly pioneer—one of the guys who made the current revival enjoyed by acts like Big Sandy, Kim Lenz and Ray Condo possible.
Dexter comes from a time when being a rockabilly performer meant risking being labeled a novelty act or a nostalgia geek, and credit must be given to anyone who stuck by the music all these years. Dexter's vocals are competent enough:his timbre is thin and eternally teenaged, but he can go apeshit on the hiccupy histrionics like no one's business.
But what always set the 42-year-old London-born-and-raised singer/ songwriter apart was his wild sweat fest of a show. That boy gots happy feet. Never concerned with the more-traditional-than-thou pieties that mark the exclusionist retro scene, Dexter captured the essence of rock & roll pleasure by letting himself go, flopping about onstage in a state of rockabilly rapture, a joy that is timeless.
Over the course of more than 20 years, with bands like Levi & the Rockats, Levi Dexter & the Ripchords, and Levi Dexter & Magic, he cut some marvelously manic sides, like "All Thru the Night," "I'm Gone," "21 Days in Jail" and a white-hot take on Marvin Rainwater's "Hot 'N' Cold," maybe the first example of the Speedy West/Jimmy Bryant influence so prevalent in 'billy today.
"It's good. I think it's a lot healthier than it's been for a long time," Dexter says of the current scene. "I think with that swing thing, a lot of the kids grew out of the Lindy Hop scene and converted over to rockabilly, so that's helped.
"Normally I play outside the rockabilly circuit," he adds. "Now that I'm doing gigs in the purist rockabilly circuit, it's been going great. The bills we play now normally have other rockabilly bands on them. That's not where I came from. I came from mixing with punks and new wave, fitting it in odd places. My first gigs were with Adam & the Ants and Siouxsie & the Banshees, bands like that."
Who are some of Dexter's favorite bands in today's rockabilly crop? "I like Rip Carson. There's a new band called the Hyperions that are sort of a mutated neo-rockabilly. They have a vibraphone, which is interesting. I like 13 Cats. As far as the authentic, pure bands, I like Ray Condo, obviously Big Sandy. . . . It depends. There's sort of neo-rockabilly and pure rockabilly. I like them both. I'll play wherever I can fit in."
Come out and help Levi Dexter fit in this Saturday night at the Foothill.
Meanwhile, another esteemed old British veteran has painted his masterpiece just south of OC. MIKE STAXis a San Diegan by way of England, but his renown as a cult artist reaches worldwide to, oh, say, maybe a few dozen hardcore fans per country (don't laugh, unless and until you have anyone worshiping at your shrine). Since the late '70s, this guy has been in bands mostly associated with the now-moribund mod scene, groups like the Crawdaddys, the Tell Tale Hearts and the Hoods. But his latest project, THE LOONS, is by far the best group he has spearheaded thus far. Less slavishly derivative of the Yardbirds, Stones and Animals (you know, the usual suspects for mod boys) than his past groups, Stax's Loons are really a blast furnace of an art-driven garage band, whose punk is spiced with the sway of every generation from the '60s to the present.
The preeminent vibe, though, is drug-fueled '60s psychosis (Stax is the gent who so skillfully annotated Rhino Records' recent Nuggets boxed set). This music teems with the dementia of such bona fide American whackos as Arthur Lee, Sky Saxon, Sean Boniwell and Roky Erickson instead of the amusing eccentrism of fey limeys like Brian Jones, Ray Davies or Keith Relf. One listen to the Loons' debut CD, Love's Dead Leaves (Get Hip Recordings), and you will believe that Stax is coming unglued, spazzin', freakin' oouuuttt, man! Prozac-bait never sounded sweeter.
The opening tune, "Insecurity Smasher," serves as a fine primer on what this group is all about. Over a relentless, tambourine-studded hard-four beat and some cheezy guitar lines lifted straight outta the Seeds canon, Stax delivers a savage vocal performance punctuated by one of the most tortured "Yeeeaaaaahhhhh!"s in rock & roll history. Dark, malevolent-sounding punk like "Paradise," "Silver Threads" and "Not the Same Girl" are musically inspired enough to please discriminating fans of '60s garage rock at the same time that they're being loud, fast and jackhammery enough to get any contempo-punk guy into the mosh pit. The Loons also pull off some Anglophile baroque pop-punk punctuated with harpsichords, farfisas and sitars that sound bent and menacing, rather than just wimpy and pretentious. The high point is "16 Story Reflection," a curiously poetic evocation of a guy jumping out a window: "People crowd below there/And they're pointing at you/Cos [sic] you're walking on the wind/With nothing to spoil your view/They all wanna learn now/'Bout the peace of mind you found/With your head in the sky/And your feet a mile from the ground."
On the Loons' promo sheet, Stax boasts, "In a music scene overpopulated by lo-fi underachievers, by-the-numbers garage groups, drab indie-pop slackers and gimmick-driven trash rock merchants, the Loons have aspired to create real music that will stand the test of time."
Couldn't have said it better myself. This is sumptuous, ageless rock & roll, and you must run right out like a good child and buy this CD. Now.
Levi Dexter performs with Danny Dean & the Homewreckers at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill, (562) 494-5196. Sat., 9 p.m. $10. 18+.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.