Photo by Daid HarrisonBig Sandy was on the line, thanking me for his inclusion in the Weekly's recent "129 Greatest OC Bands Ever" list, where he'd placed at No. 19. "What a nice, humble fella," I thought to myself. "If I were Big Sandy and failed to place in the Top 10 in my own backyard after all I'd accomplished in the last 10 years, and then I took a gander at much of the feckless, fly-by-night crapola that was rated above me, I sure as shit wouldn't be thanking anyone." But then, well, I'm a hateful little man, while Sandy is an affable big man (think Danny DeVito and Hoss Cartwright), so I guess it's my job to be bitter for both of us.
I'll justify my argument for Anaheim's Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys warranting Top 10 status (or more) by noting that they've probably been responsible for popularizing rockabilly and vintage roots music among the masses more than any band since the Stray Cats. And, unlike the Cats, the group has done this without the benefit of anything remotely resembling a hit record; that their campaign has been waged in the most subterranean fashion imaginable (particularly in the early years, when they made the most impact) makes the case all the more compelling. In fact, if you ask the average music fan about the bands populating the current rockabilly scene, my guess is that the name Big Sandy would come up more than anyone else's, including the vastly more commercially viable ex-Cat, Brian Setzer.
That's not to say I find this group faultless. Sandy and company sometimes approach vintage music with a purist's devotion that feels, to me, as studied as it does passionate. But on balance, Big Sandy is a man equally possessed of gorgeous voice and unusual charisma. The Fly-Rite Boys are ace musicians, though it sometimes frustrates me that these guys don't stretch out more and free the musical mad scientists surely lurking within—challenging themselves to create new sounds, rather than merely recapturing to perfection that which came before them. Well, it's their gig and they're entitled to it, even if I wish better things for them.
Witness the group's latest effort, It's Time. Because the album came on the heels of the dark, brooding, oddly poetic (and wrongly panned) Night Tide and the I'm-gonna-edjamacate-your-lily-white-rockabilly-asses-to-the-pleasures-of-greasy-R&B Dedicated to You, my reaction was disappointment, and later, guarded approval. Although the group wades into previously uncharted waters with Cajun and Eddie Cochran-esque rock & roll sounds (and features fellow OC roots god Chris Gaffney merrily squeezing the guts out of his accordion in a cameo), the album comes off as far less personal, committed and daring than its odd-duck predecessors.
It's a fine album all the same, full of great singing, songwriting and musicianship, stylistically eclectic, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, but it does seem designed to please rather than challenge, even as one can't help but admire the sleek curves and beauty within, like an expensive sports car on cruise control. I'm sure the pious, Grindstone-reading public will take great comfort in the fact that Big Sandy has come home, and I'm not sure this is such a bad thing either, provided the group continues to grow and evolve in the future. And Sandy, who I've come to learn from experience is acutely sensitive to criticism, seems like he endeavored to placate the expectations from all concerned in recording this new effort.
"I just wanted to get a more lively feel than some of the other records we've done," he says. "Some of the others are a little bit dead-sounding or something, and I wanted to be more vibrant, you know? There was no underlying theme this time, either; the songs just kind of came about as we were going along in rehearsals. We'd been moving away from the kind of swingier things we'd been doing for a while and I wanted to get back . . . explore some of the same territory we did on Night Tide, but do it in a more balanced way. I've been wanting to kind of return to our original approach, but to do it while still moving forward."
One way they've showcased that growth is to include Cajun and early rock & roll-tinged sounds, "stuff we've always listened to, but had never really included in our own music before," Sandy says. "That kind of opened it up. It's something we've wanted to do for a while, go in kind of a loop rather than just be a rockabilly or Western swing band."
It's Time was recorded live at the historic Electro Vox Studio in LA, where such greats as Tex Ritter, T. Texas Tyler and the Maddox Brothers & Rose laid down classic sides in decades past. The studio was purchased a couple of years ago by Joey Altruda (ex-Jump With Joey and Tupelo Chainsex), who's been re-introducing the venue to a new generation.
"It's a good-sounding room to begin with, but Joey found out a lot more about the history of the place," says Sandy. "Every time we'd come in to do a session, he'd tell us another story, who'd recorded there, and it kind of added to the atmosphere, knowing what had gone on in there before. It's like when we recorded at Capitol studios a few years back, it's just cool to know what has gone on before you came in, especially if you're in tune with the music in a place like that."
Yep, this record sounds like it was recorded in 1951, all creamy midrange and vintage car-radio mix. If you played this for me and I'd never heard Big Sandy before, I'm certain I would peg it as an undiscovered treasure from a West Coast outfit under the influence of Bob Wills and Hardrock Gunter some 50 years ago. This, my friends, is not a bad thing; the band certainly accomplished what they set out to do.
Meanwhile, Sandy recently put in his sixth appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, returned from an eventful tour of Australia, and will be spending much of the rest of the year on the road, as is his custom. He jumped ship from Hightone Records to the bigger umbrella of Yep Roc Records (where his labelmates include the likes of Nick Lowe and Paul Weller, rather than the predictable cast of retro rangers) and as the years slip by, Big Sandy is easing into a role as a sort of spokesman and goodwill ambassador for vintage music.
"It's funny—you look back and try to figure out how you went from being one of the young guys on the scene to being considered like a veteran," he muses. "I find myself being asked to emcee a lot of shows and rockabilly festivals that have been going on around the country. They ask me to come out and just introduce the bands and be kind of a spokesperson for the scene, I guess. This isn't anything I ever set out to do along the way. It just happened."
Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys play the Return Of The Rumble with Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, the Graveyard Farmers and the Atomic Men at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Fri., 8 p.m. $16.50.
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