also appearing: The D-Rays
Rumba Café, Columbus, Ohio – May 3, 2015
My left ear is still adjusting to life spent at a greater than two-foot distance from the hanging P.A. speaker at extreme stage right of Columbus’ Rumba Café, which freshly charms me each new time I enter. The stage harkens back to better, more defiantly low-fidelity times by standing little more than a foot off the floor, and is itself a weirdly angled thing that juts out from two walls like a peninsula from the mainland. I was jammed up against not just the hanger but a standing speaker as tall as Ryan Seacrest. On this, their second year in a row playing Columbus after many years of conspicuous absence, surf/garage/rockabilly juggernaut Southern Culture on the Skids put on a fantastic show, full of unflagging energy and crowd-pleasing, adrenalized rockers, countrified anthems and plucky underdogs drawn from every album (and several E.P.s) in their close to thirty-year career. I’d been here before, of course, both literally and figuratively, the latter many times, but nothing about the setting or scenario seemed the least bit tired to me. It never does.
My ears may have felt well-adjusted in the moment, as I head-banged and shouted along to song after song, though afterward, in moments of dead quiet, they rang like the test patterns that occasionally pop up at 5am for television stations temporarily off the air. I did a rambling but loving full write-up of last year’s S.C.O.T.S. show that included several personal anecdotes, including the time in Northern Kentucky I portrayed infamous masked wrestler “El Santo” during the show’s greased lightning finale. In rereading it, I was mildly surprised to find a great deal of overlap in the songs played from that set to this one, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. S.C.O.T.S. is an institution by now, but only to a small, devoted group of fans and well-wishers. The ultimate independent contractors, they can charge $25 per ticket and have it be a high value proposition, completely sell out a hole in the wall like the Rumba, unleash a 2-hour, 23-song festival of swaggering, sweaty fun, hang out a little while afterward, then move on to the next town. Everyone leaves feeling good, no matter on which side of the stage they stood.
Having just witnessed what, for the sake of symmetry, I’ll estimate was my fortieth ever Southern Culture show (the true number is by now, after close to twenty years of concert going, pretty much unknowable), I left the Rumba floating on air, or would have had I not spent the previous four+ plus hours standing in one spot (however much my upper half might’ve moved to the music). It turns out that residual natural adrenaline, even syringefuls of it, does precious little to soothe achy feet, but we all must suffer for our art from time to time. Drummer Dave Hartman and guitarist Rick Miller came to the stage both wearing pork pie hats, though Miller’s was beachier in appearance, and further augmented by a T-shirt proclaiming “Miller’s Fried Chicken of Athens, Ohio”, which, as always, since every S.C.O.T.S. show devolves by its end into a chorus line of audience-drawn dancing girls firing chicken at lucky gents in the first few rows to the tune of “Eight Piece Box”, would prove prophetic.
Though her days of seriously kitschy vamping are seemingly behind her, ace bassist Mary Huff was still resplendent in her trademarked bouffant wig and leggings. The band was in exceptional spirits overall, with Mary even once calling out for requests before Rick wrangled the show back from her with a specific (brand new!) song in mind, plus a quip about how she sometimes messes with his guitar rig mid-show (she nodded devilishly/enthusiastically). Despite having a ton of DNA in common, this year’s crowd blew the prior’s (which I’m not sure even sold out) away completely, clapping and singing along with little, if any, prompting necessary. In contrast to career retrospectives that skim the highlights, this S.C.O.T.S. show was pretty much all highlights, from the time-tested street racing of “Shotgun” to the laid back Sunday drive of “Voodoo Cadillac”, to the delirious scream along of “Soul City”, to the all-purpose audience participation of “Banana Puddin’”. Audience participation is always a watchword at a Southern Culture show, as the slinky, go-go dancing “Camel Walk” – during which I caught an Oatmeal Pie from a pretty girl on stage – segued into the aforementioned “Eight Piece Box” – the girls were, by this point, throwing chicken shreds overhand and putting torque enough on some to rival a minor league relief pitcher…I caught an almost fully intact breast between the numbers – into the supercharged, inspirational rave-up “Daddy was a Preacher, but Mama was a Go-Go Girl”. There were very few glaring omissions, and even several surprises, such as the first performance of “40 Miles to Vegas” I’d witnessed in some time and the first performance of “Strangest Ways”*** I’d witnessed EVER. For a deep cut-loving uber-fan, it was heaven.
***That’s the song S.C.O.T.S. performed during the beach party sequence in 1997’s horror hit “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. I couldn’t believe they finally dusted it off after approaching two decades. Live it’s a somewhat different animal – messier, less precise – but still fantastic.
I’m never quite myself at a Southern Culture on the Skids concert, it seems, although it’s perhaps just as reasonable to say that that giant goof, the one right down front, five feet or fewer from stage, mouthing every word and singing selected lyrics with utter abandon, swaying and bouncing and air drumming in (let’s face it) perfect rhythm and time, while doing all sorts of unnatural things with and to his neck…maybe THAT’S the real guy. That one over there, who is far quieter and thoughtful while still being quite geeky, the one who goes to beer tastings and writes a blog, could be he’s actually the imposter, because the former is who he really wants to be, music coursing through his veins like the lifeblood it, frankly, is, and just inhaling life in that very specific, utterly spectacular, moment. That’s how I want/try to be in relation to all the music I love. Some shows it’s easier than at others. Last week it was thrash metal. This week it was surf-a-billy. Next week it’ll be experimental alt-metal. I simply can’t not be this way. It is a fundamental part of who I am. I made eye contact with Rick and Mary several times throughout the show and we hurled lyrics at one another gleefully. Southern Culture never makes its shows less than a pleasure.
I set up shop not five feet from the unassuming, unsuspecting Dave Hartman’s utilitarian, stand up drum kit, leaving my concert personality turned up to about 90% throughout, though dutifully trying to refrain from air drumming right in the man’s face, because I can hardly think of anything more disrespectful and potentially distracting. Sometimes, I still couldn’t help myself. The music’s just that wholesome and infectious. At the end of the main set, Dave personally handed me the set of drumstick brushes he’d played with. After the encore, I thanked him for the gesture – and for everything, really – and he spontaneously offered to sign them for me. They’ll go into my cabinet of memorabilia eventually, right alongside the drumstick I snagged from him over a decade ago. Ten years, two entirely different kinds of drumsticks, neatly indicating the passage of time via adjustments made over that span. Both memories from great shows, both battle tested, still playable, and both now mine. I looked over the signatures – black Sharpie against red grip tape – a time or ten last night before settling down to attempt some last minute TV, and everything, the achy neck, the achy feet, the test pattern ringing in my ears, felt absolutely worth it.
As it always is. As I imagine it always will be. As if the receipt of something more tangible than a simple, powerful, wonderful memory was, in itself, necessary to make for a special night. As if.