Friday, January 14, 2011

All Hail the Bar Band (and Casey Neill and the Norway Rats)

I like bar bands. 3-5 guys (though women are more than welcome in this club), guitar-oriented, chord-driven songs, heart on sleeve lyrics, scruffy appearance. They’ll play anytime and anywhere, but are most comfortable in a great neighborhood bar.

They make no secret of their influences and more likely than not, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry, The MC5 and The Clash are among them. They like to throw in a few cover songs and those are heartfelt and rarely “ironic”. They take their rock’n’roll history seriously, but their shows are loose affairs with a sense of humor often on display.

The guy who writes the songs usually reads a lot of novels and is an intelligent guy, though an unpretentious type who keeps his smarts a bit under wraps.

Their shows are fun and quite a bit more unpredictable than the suggested orthodoxy above might suggest.

The best of these bands stick around for many years, play out live a lot, and at some point seem on the verge of some break that does not happen. They toil along as a local band that gets taken for granted but has an intensely loyal, albeit small following. The local press often ignores them because they aren’t cool enough or even mildly weird. They don’t get picked to play in the [your region here] equivalent of SXSW but that doesn’t bother them.

Sometimes they drink too much but they are often that much more enjoyable when they do.

A few bar bands actually make it, notably the Faces, whose Five Guys Walk in a Bar box set may be the blueprint for this genre, a must own rock’n’roll bonanza. Or they develop into something quite a bit more serious and become arena or stadium rock heroes, moving on from their rootsier more basic bar band period – The Beatles, The Stones being notable examples. A few have been in the right place at the right time or had a novelty hit that got them on the radio – The J Geils Band, the Georgia Satellites. And NRBQ and Los Lobos turned it into such an art form that they developed a devoted cult following, big enough to allow them to tour the country for decades.

Everywhere I’ve lived, I have become one of those loyal fans who gets out to see his favorite bar band often, never tiring of their thing. In the 1980s in Chicago it was The Slugs. In the Chapel Hill-Raleigh area in the 1990s it was the Woods (who wrote “Battleship Chains”, which the Georgia Satellites had a minor hit with). And in Portland OR, home right now, I take every chance I can to see Casey Neill and the Norway Rats.

Casey is a terrific songwriter, and if you don’t believe me, ask Steve Earle who is a big fan. Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, R.E.M) are frequent attendees at Casey’s shows here. When Casey cranked out a blistering version of Springsteen’s “Prove It All Night” for a recent encore, John Wesley Harding, in Portland making a record with Buck and McCaughey, got so excited he jumped on stage to grab the mic and share the vocal.

And Portland being home now to seemingly every indie rock musician in the US (at least those not living in Brooklyn) has allowed Casey to put together a first rate band, The Norway Rats, a bit of a revolving outfit depending on the tour schedules of ace sometimes members - guitarist Chet Lyster (Eels, Lucinda Williams) and accordian/keyboardist Jenny Conlee (The Decemberists). A first rate local singer-songwriter in her own right, Little Sue, sings backup.

And unlike some bar bands, Casey Neill and the Norway Rats make great records. His new one Goodbye to the Rank and File (how’s that for a bar band album title?) is especially good. It rocks (“This Year Was A Blur”), has passionate mid tempo songs (“Al Summer Glory”), and a great cover, Husker Du’s “She Floated Away”, which features just a hint of the traditional Irish sound that makes its way into Casey’s music by way of the Pogues and the Undertones. Casey’s previous record Brooklyn Bridge was also stellar, a love letter to rough and tumble old New York and Casey’s recent stint living in the Bowery.

Casey does tour a bit and if he hits your town, you shouldn’t miss him. Meanwhile, go see your town’s bar band. Toast them when they bust out a great cover. And post something about them here or some other blog.

And always generously tip your bartenders.


By: Jim Desmond (like the founder of this fine blog, a true believer in rock’n’roll and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. I appreciate John asking me to write here. I too once lived in Nashville, 1978-81. And my favorite bar band there was Tim Krekel and the Sluggers.).


Jim Desmond said...

oops forgot the link, still getting hang of this business -

John Hyland said...

JD, Thanks so much for posting this! While you were putting it up, I was being aurally assaulted by the Bar Band's Bar Band: Guided by Voices. What a reunion, and what a spectacular display of rock weaponry: Bob and his army just mowed the crowd down. "Motor Away" closed out the second(!) encore...

Unknown said...

Jim : great to have you back as an inkstained wretch. Glad to see the nod to the Slugs, the greatest bar band, ever. As I was listening to this I was thinking Husker Du, cool to see they acknowledge the influence with a cover.


Tina said...

Caught the Norway Rats when they were here in San Diego, they were great! Thanks for touting the bar band, I love 'em! My fave SD bar band is Bill Cardinal & the Canyon Band.

Laurie Spezzano said...

Gotta love your bar bands! Mine was TKO (Tim Krekel Orchestra), and I love the records from Tim's Sluggers days. Check out the video on youtube of Tim Krekel with Terry Adams of NRBQ sitting in, from my favorite bar that is no more - Zena's in Louisville KY.
Thanks for the post.