Someone recently gave me a CD that was touted as containing some of the best rockabilly music a person could hope to hear.  Great! I thought.  Rockabilly might be due for a resurgence; the airwaves are getting bogged down by Bieber and when was the last time you heard slapback at the top of the charts?

Trouble was, the CD’s tunes sounded as if they’d been lifted wholesale from a 1960s secret agent spoof that had the hero surf-guitaring with Bela Lugosi and Slim Jim Phantom.  I believe the acronym “WTF?” was created for this particular CD that now has been lost underneath the passenger seat of my car.

It seemed that a lot of what I was listening to recently was full of mimicry that in some extreme instances bordered on unintentional mockery.  This has its place, but it can border on overkill rather than serving as simple reference or jumping-off point.  In some instances, the mimicry had gotten so severe that I was afraid to make comment about it lest I cripple and destroy that which was intended as wholly serious–a riff clearly lifted from the Amboy Dukes “Journey to the Center of the Mind”;  a melody that bothered me deep into the night until I realized it was the old “Things go better with Coca-Cola” jingle…and so on.

For this reason, I approached The Bonedrivers’ second CD–the simply titled “Mobile”–with some trepidation.  There was a lot of shaky ground on which to stand with this project, not the least of which was that frontman Keith Karloff’s turf is decidedly pavement-urban (NYC and SF) and that Karloff was attempting a white-boy celebration of black-based Southern R & B based, besides on a sheer love of the genre, on some vacation time spent in the Deep South.  Hence the name of the CD, after the largely uncelebrated city by the bay that is a far cry from the sophisticated City by the Bay that Karloff calls home.

Karloff has had quite the trajectory through music and the music business, a good four decades’ worth.  This makes Karloff sound ancient, but he started young.  His path has taken him through a number of bands (including a drag Stones cover band that was a surprise hit) to the Bonedrivers territory, in which he seems to have found a comfortable home.  That isn’t to say that Karloff has lost all rock-and-roll goatishness with age and experience–he is still part Gone Jackal, after all, even as his work has mellowed like a good aged bourbon. 

The Bonedrivers play plus-100 gigs in and around the San Francisco Bay Area each year and this experience shows in the tight sound of “Mobile.” Although Karloff penned all of the songs, he doesn’t play all of the instruments.  Thomas Stokes on bass and Jim Nelson on drums are, with Karloff,  the Bonedrivers’ nucleus, with guest-musician sit-ins on vocals and keyboards. Karloff explains in the liner notes that he was “deeply moved by the beauty, mystery, melancholy, and unique spirit” of the South.  All well and good, but not so easy to accurately describe in song.  The South–and its music–has a tone and a pridefulness that is analogous to its seeming to stand apart from the rest of the continental US in terms of psychological and physical rhythm.  The heat does that, as does a slow economy and the fact that you can still see roadside poverty as timeless as it was during the Depression.

In “Mobile,” Karloff gets his feet wet enough in Delta sound to make a believable anthem.  There’s not a shred of copycatting in any of the ten songs, which was the thing I feared most.  Things are kept simple for the most part, and this makes the CD a real gem.  As I listened to it, I pondered why it worked when it could easily have failed and I came up with a combination of two factors:  Simplicity and originality.  Karloff has authored a straight-up set of good old bar boogie minus the melancholy of inauthentic place and time.  The Bonedrivers’  Southern GPS is guided not just by Karloff but  by guest keyboard guru Austin De Lone, who seems able to play in any style and who excels in this one.

The best of these tunes are “It’s a Beautiful Thing” and “Honky Tonk Prayer,” which Karloff has also cut for radio.  The first is a love song to, of all things, domestication of the male animal, and the second is one of the best “Southern” songs I’ve heard in decades.  Simplicity, remember?  Karloff doesn’t seem to be someone who overwrites and then has to mercilessly edit.  Music and lyric are in perfect balance and that is, I think, one of the hallmarks of the Southern rock genre in general or to all forms of song. 

A third favorite is the closer, “That’s The Way I Roll.”  This is as good a bar boogie as you are likely to find and the kind of thing that used to appear on the B side of a Top 40 single that became a latent and secondary hit.

The other seven songs, including the Delta-stomper “Gimme Lightning,” are a roadmap of Karloff’s Southern vacations, ranging from Memphis to the Carolinas and the deep bayou.  This might not be clear to the Northern ear and that’s fine, too. It’s the kind of thing you want to listen to in a bar or a car and not in a stadium; it’s for drinking and catting around to and not for picking apart or for appreciating as one of crowd of ten thousand.  I’ve not seen The Bonedrivers play live and, living in Florida, it’s not likely that I will, but I get the sense that the band can plunk “Mobile” down into their regular club set without alienating bargoers, which is always something to consider when the witching hour sets in and all people want to hear is “Sweet Home Alabama.”  The Bonedrivers are not a cover outfit and achieve success on their own merits and with some very hard work.  The biggest compliment I can pay them and their new album is that it is my earnest belief that they could slide right into some of our more discerning venues and fit right in.  One should expect no less of Karloff, a shaman who can change his sound and appearance with the cast of an eye or the flick of a pick.  Let’s hope he stays in this iteration for a good many more miles.

Bonus:  Phallic kudzu photo on CD cover.

–Suzanna Mars

Band Web site at:  www.bonedrivers.com

Buy CD:  www.blueblack.com/bonedrivers/mobilecd.html 

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