Rant ‘N’ Roll: Rock ‘N’ Roll Still Exists

Good solid rock ‘n’ roll bands are hard to come by these days. That’s why when a band as seasoned and rockin’ as the New Orleans Suspects comes along, I pay attention. They’re but five years old yet each has been playing way down yonder for decades. Bassist Reggie Scanlon was in The Radiators, and if that means anything to you, we be like-minded ‘cause they were big-time bad-ass. Drummer Mean Willie Green is still in The Neville Brothers, the first family of the Crescent City. Lead guitarist Jake Eckert has been soloing for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Saxophonist Jeff Watkins spent 12 long hard years working for James Brown (no easy feat) leading his band as Musical Director. CJ Gruver is their secret weapon on keyboards, electric kazoo, percussion and vocals. Ouroboros (Louisiana Red Hot) is their first studio CD of all-original material. The name refers to the mythological serpent who eats his own tail, representing the continuous cycle of life and death. 10 solid songs, no filler, but imbued with a stylistic flair traversing funk, Americana, Latin and rhythm ‘n’ blues. Yet this is a rock band, akin to, say, Little Feat or The Band. They don’t wear their influences on their collective sleeve so don’t expect Professor Longhair piano or Marsalis jazz. Their pastiche, their meld, their fusion of seemingly disparate elements is subtle. As I said, in a day and age when good solid rock ‘n’ roll bands are far and few between, these Suspects are unusual.

Rock & Roll Time (Vanguard) by Jerry Lee Lewis is really a country album, and a better one than anything coming out of Nashville these days. The 79-year-old legend, at one time, was the living personification of the danger inherent in real rock ‘n’ roll, back when it was perceived as a gut punch to polite society. That’s why Keith and Woody of the Stones play guitars on Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” here. The title cut is a forgotten classic by Kris Kristofferson. ”Stepchild” is one of Dylan’s lesser known gems. Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights Big City” has some vocal/guitar help from Neil Young. The Band’s Robbie Robertson plays guitar on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Al Kooper co-wrote “Mississippi Kid” with former Allman brother Derek Trucks on guitar. The Killer switches to guitar for the Jimmie Rodgers classic “Blues Like Midnight.” Goddess Shelby Lynne sings on Kristofferson’s “Here Comes That Rainbow Again,” a song so universal and true lyrically, it’ll send shivers down your spine. And it all ends with Berry’s “Promised Land.” With liner notes by one of my favorite American writers, Peter Guralnick, this famous cast all yield to The Killer. If you didn’t know who it was, you wouldn’t even notice ‘em. This is Jerry Lee’s album, and unlike Jerry Lee albums of recent vintage where his duet partners were standing up shouting (that means you, Bruce), these famous musicians take a decidedly back seat. And rightly so. For when this titan has to die someday, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll itself will no longer exist in living form.

I’m always asked who are my favorite rock bands and I always answer the Stones, Kinks, Beatles, LedZep, Bruce and The Band. The great rock bands of the 1960s all took their cue from the ‘50s pioneers. Hell, all John and Paul ever wanted to be at first was The Everly Brothers. Mick Jagger sang Buddy Holly songs in the kitchen day and night. Little Richard gave every rockin’ generation of bands since their theatrics. Chuck Berry and his uncredited pianist Johnny Johnson wrote the book on how to write a song so profound but still under three minutes. The Kinks, though, were one of the few bands who came right out of the shoot as totally original, setting the stage for metal and punk with garage rock like “You Really Got Me” (ask Metallica). Now that Columbia/Legacy has taken over The Kinks Katalog, I’ve been singing and dancing all over again to such delicious re-releases as Muswell Hillbillies and Essential, both sterling, hearkening back to an era of unparalleled creativity in British rock (until Bowie rewrote the rules). The genius of the Brothers Davies has never been more self-evident: Ray, in all his compositional glory and effete vocal mannerisms, so veddy veddy British…Dave in all his riff-pounding glory, maybe the first rock Guitar Hero, who could write like Shakespeare (“Death Of A Clown”) and sing those way-high harmonies. Dave always had the longest hair and was the wildest Kink. Stories about him are endless.

Postscript: I contend the original spark of rock ‘n’ roll has never been improved upon: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, The Everlys, Roy Orbison, Elvis and Buddy Holly have certainly been elaborated upon, but, let me repeat, never improved upon. Sure, each decade added their own twerks to the formula until the ‘90s when it all petered out for me.