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Sunday Music for a Saturday Night

You want Hell, fire and brimstone? Go see the Reverend and the Colonel

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From reality television to "keeping it real," popular culture in the 2000s claims to give folks an authentic slice of the world. So why does John Lennon's plea, "Just gimme some truth," seem more appropriate now than ever? The pervasive feeling that everyone is on the make or on the take nourishes a craving for something honest, not pre-packaged and marketed. A dispiriting careerism has gripped rock, sucking the rebellious spirit out of the music and even its fans, whose passivity now rivals that of your average moviegoer. You don't realize what you're missing until you see someone like the Reverend Horton Heat or Colonel J.D. Wilkes of The Legendary Shack*Shakers, a couple of showmen who understand the power of performance and can energize crowds like a tent-revival preacher. These two rockers are friends and kindred spirits who dig down to the roots of American music for inspiration, mining the blues, country-western and its bastard blend, rockabilly.

Wilkes is a harmonica-blowing wild man whose twitchy, spastic stage presence gives the impression he's speaking in tongues. He credits Heat with being a major inspiration.

"I remember the night I saw him for the first time at the 328 club in Nashville. It was one of the greatest shows I've ever seen," Wilkes says. "It was the Martini Time tour, and there was a huge mosh pit of people going nuts in front of the stage. Some dork jumps up on stage, and he's dancing around and goes over and tags the Rev on his butt, then hops back into the mosh pit."

The Rev, says Wilkes, was not impressed. "You can see his eyes scanning the mosh pit for this dude. And then you see the moment of discovery in his eyes when he spots him," Wilkes recalls. "He jumps into the mosh pit, his Grestch (guitar) in hand, and lands it square on the guy's noggin, knocking him out with the butt end of his guitar. Just lays the dude out, jumps back on stage and kicks into 'Cruisin' for a Bruisin.' I'd never heard or seen anything like it before. And it was everything I loved — the rockabilly, the blues, the Latin music, but like loud and aggressive and passionate."

It was a moment that changed Wilkes' life. He hails Heat's playing (calling him "one of the great underrated rock guitarists") as well as his songwriting ("he writes these huge anthems that get people to pump their fists"). Seeing Heat's performance also cemented Wilkes' future as an untamed rocker on a mission.

The Rev is is equally impressed with Wilkes. "J.D. is a wild man, but also, it's an endearment to me to have someone play blues harmonica that well at such a young age. Better than a lot of harmonica players — well-renowned ones that I can't stand. They think they're playing blues harmonica, but they're not. See what I'm saying? They're not really getting the sound."

Getting the sound is something Wilkes and the Shack*Shakers — like Heat and his band — know how to do. Whether they're doing bubbling Klezmer, ragged blues shuffles or jumped-up rockabilly, the Shack*Shakers understand the details of music. For example, religion was an important part of Wilkes' life when he was growing up, and it finds its way into his songs, some of which have a dark, gothic feel.

"A lot of the songs are set in the woods where kids play when they're young, but it's a scary place," says Wilkes, who grew up all over the southern United States, from Kentucky to Texas. "The trees dwarf you and you feel very small, and lost. All the mountain folklore that comes out of Kentucky influenced me, too. The superstitions, the haunted ghost stories and folklore find their way into the lyrics and imagery."

Texas-native Heat grew up listening to the blues, but ended up playing rockabilly after he was recruited, at age 13, to play in a band of three brothers and a sister. They told him, "It's just like the blues, only faster." While in his teens and early 20s, Heat played a variety of styles but found himself drawn back to rockabilly.

"A lot of that stuff they call rock & roll, I don't call rock & roll," Heat says. "Part of my interest in rockabilly is I can see how it was an unsung music. It was so rip-roaring wild and you compare it with what they were calling rock & roll after that — Frankie Valli and the Mamas & the Papas? That's not really rock & roll. They're fine for what they do, but compared to Jerry Lee pounding straight 8s on a piano?"

Wilkes shares Heat's disdain for fake rock.

"I don't have time to waste on those (musicians) that are passionless," he says. "I'm only interested in people who are in love with life and on fire to do something. I'm only interested in bands that light a fire under my ass and have that fire in their eyes.

"These indie-rock kids are the dandy-fops of the 21st century. They stand around aloof, jaded and prissy. They even wear women's pants now," he adds with a cackle.

"Come to our show and see what it's all about. There's a lot of good bands out there that bring that spark of life, fire and brimstone, and contribute to this collective effervescence that is so much missing in our modern times. It's a Sunday come-to-meeting on a Saturday night."

The Reverend Horton Heat and The Legendary Shack*Shakers play at the Visulite Theatre at 9pm Thursday. Tickets are $14.

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