Dusty Rhodes and the River Band's songwriting process works in mysterious ways.  Photo by Brent Murrell.
Dusty Rhodes and the River Band's songwriting process works in mysterious ways. Photo by Brent Murrell.

What Would Jesus Play?

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band are clearly God's favorite classic-rockin' folk band from Orange County. Look at the evidence: The group's lead singer/guitarist is named Kyle Divine, and banjo/lap-steel guitarist and singer/songwriter Edson Choi once played in a Christian gospel-rap group. Then there's the divine intervention that has steered the band in the five years since Divine (the Dusty, not the God) and Dustin Apodaca (yet another singer who plays keyboard/accordion) were Cal State Fullerton students.

"He gave me a disc of him singing and playing all the instruments," Divine remembers. "It was sloppy and all over the place, but it was really good." The pair set about writing songs based on their love of classic rock—and a healthy disdain for the pop-punk and Radiohead most other OC bands their age were trying to ape. "I'm originally from Kansas, so all we had was classic rock on the radio. Dustin's from Anaheim, but his parents were big into classic rock, too."

Dylan and the Band, the three-part harmonies of the Beatles/Beach Boys, the Southern-fried soul of the Allman Brothers, even the violin riffin' of the Charlie Daniels Band—and a whole lotta Rolling Stones circa Gram Parsons—all made their way into Dusty's music, which has become a sing-along barroom hootenanny that sounds like the Polyphonic Spree covering Tom Waits. All of which is apparently part of God's plan, not Divine's. His plan was to be a fuddy-duddy acoustic band.

"Originally, I wanted it just to be this folk thing," he admits. "But Edson wanted to be able to play all this classic-rock guitar."

And when the Dusties recorded their sensational First You Live disc last year for otherwise-punk label Sideone Dummy Records, the happy accidents just kept on happening. Produced by Ikey Owens, SoCal rock's Billy Preston (see his keyboard work for Mars Volta, et al.), First You Live is nothing if not inspired. Violinist Andrea Babinski wrote out string and horn parts for the sea chanteys, murder ballads and Outlaws-ish rave-ups contained therein, and the players kept appearing like the Magi bearing gifts. Saxophone player Jared Parsons was originally in the studio to film a documentary. "Then we found out he played and told him to go get his horn," Divine says and laughs. The result sounds like Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera as done by the Flying Burrito Brothers. Songs flow into one another; "Dear Honey"'s hung-over panhandler ("I drank away all my money/I spent the night on the street/I think I just lost my dear honey/Who's gonna take care of me?") sobers up in "Oh Icicle": "And you know she ain't comin' back/I guess it's time we face that fact."

"The bands we grew up on made great albums, not just 10 songs put together like bands today do," Divine says with a sigh. Now might be a good time to interject that if not for the Hand of God, Dusty Rhodes could have been a white Bone Thugs-N-Harmony—or worse, a whiter Color Me Badd.

Before Divine, Apodaca and Choi came to the bluegrass-inflected classic rock, they had all been, they discovered, in various honky hip-hop groups. "I used to rap in an '80s-style group," Divine admits. "Dustin was in another one. Edson was in his Christian gospel-rap group. Now, we only rap when we're really drunk." Still, you can hear a kind of Slick Rick-by-way-of-Neil Young narrative in their songs, which, as Divine puts it, "are about people who kill people, people who get killed." Slick Rick couldn't have said it better.

In that way, Dusty Rhodes single-bandedly make the case that early hip-hop and classic rock share a pedigree of storytelling and quality songwriting that is missing from today's poppy punk and experimental post-rock fare. And for as good as First You Live is, Divine says the Dusties' true pulpit is the stage. They can play to the jam-band faithful (as they are on this tour opening for a born-again Blind Melon), the fans of Arcade Fire and labelmates Gogol Bordello, even crusty punks who can hear a more hicked-out Flogging Molly (also labelmates) in the Dusties. It may not have the horns-and-hall hootenanny vibe of the album, "But you get all that sweaty, drunk, jumpin'-around energy," Divine insists. From them—and, one supposes, those congregated. Can I get an "amen"? I mean, one the Dusties' haven't already gotten? Jee-zuss!

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band perform with Great Glass Elevator, the Living Suns, Francisco the Man and Down Jefferson at The Alley, 140 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6934; www.thealleyclub.com. Fri., 7 p.m. $10-$12. For More information, visit www.myspace.com/dustyrhodes.


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