We pulled up to the sidewalk in front of Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom and Tavernafter following our outdated, unlicensed GPS navigator on a meandering path through town,
looking for a beach that we never found. It was Sunday, known as the Lord’s Day to followers of traditional Christianity (no offense to our Seventh Day Adventist readers), and we arrived to find a sort of religious gathering already in progress. A crowd had gathered around a makeshift patio comprised of picnic tables and caution tape to watch a matinee set by Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival.
The Gospel Revival consisted of two guys dressed in vintage polyester outfits that made them look like huckster preachers who had just stepped out of a Cadillac in the 1970s. They played fuzzed out country blues with the vocals shouted into a CB receiver and pushed through a practice amp to give it that extra-lo-fi sound. After the crazy little televangelist dude on guitar flinging himself all over the place, what you noticed first about USGR was their drumset, an apparently homemade mess of big, industrial cardboard tubes. The drummer occasionally sang or talked into a contraption fastened to his face that sent his distorted words through a megaphone that poked out of his makeshift bass drum like the blower on a
hot-rod Camaro. Later, the guy from Whiskey Daredevils would say of Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival, “The one practice they’ve had in the last sixteen months really paid off.” It’s true that their sound was intentionally sloppy (a sheet of paper taped to the drum read “Lo-fi on a Jesus High”), and the music sometimes seemed to take a back seat to the goofball, faux-fundamentalist pageantry, but that’s exactly what made USGR so much fun.
Shandi and I, having emailed a link to this blog to Southern Culture on the Skids’ manager, were on the list for the show, so I felt a certain amount of pressure to scmooze the bands and come up with a really brilliant write-up. We showed our IDs to the door guy and headed down a cool hallway where the merchandise tables (and a table with a petition to put the repeal of Senate Bill 5 on the ballot) were set up, leading to the ballroom. The ballroom was an impressive auditorium, with fancy molding like an old-time movie theater, a big, open dancefloor and folk scenes painted on the walls. This wasn’t a rotten punk bar; it was an honest to God concert venue. Was I, then, ready to act like a real journalist? I doubted it. We headed to the bar in the back room for tall boys.
The Whiskey Daredevils opened the show. Their singer was a Garth Brooks-looking guy in a cowboy shirt who was given to Mussolini-esque dramatic gestures, and I’m pretty sure the guitar player was Wes Studi from Last of the Mohicans. Sitting in the bar before the
show, Shandi had read my horoscope, which advised me to seek love by buying a drink for a man with tight jeans a handlebar mustache. I was surprised and a bit frightened to see exactly such a man seated behind the Whiskey Daredevils drum kit. The front man informed the crowd that this show would be their bass player’s last gig with the band.
The Daredevils played a tight set that got the crowd moving, even if we were all anxious for them to finish up so that Southern Culture could come out. Their sound reminded me of a slightly more rockabilly Beat Farmers without Country Dick. The song 200 Miles to Wheeling appealed specifically to Columbus folks, which I appreciated. Why should Memphis get to have a monopoly on all the good rockabilly songs? For their last tune, they bid farewell to their former bassist and welcomed his replacement to the stage. The new bass player turned out to be Sugar, of former Lords of the Highway fame, the well-known rock and roll scene queen who once scandalized reality television with her provocative cavorting on the upright bass. sugar can always be counted on for a good show, and her appearance at the tail end of the Daredevils set brought the energy level up to where it needed to be as we all anticipated the advent of one of the coolest bands ever, S.C.O.T.S.
One of the coolest bands ever… That sounds nonspecific and needlessly hyperbolic, but that’s a weakness I have in approaching this subject matter. The truth is, I’ve just been a tremendously nerdy fan of Southern Culture on the Skids for years. They’re the band I always go on to my friends about after I’ve had a few drinks. For people who know me, Southern Culture is like Marxism, one of those things I carp about endlessly, so it’s better to wait until I run out of steam and not question me. For the most part, my friends haven’t been interested. Apparently no one in my age group is, either. Most of the people packed into the Ballroom looked at least ten years older than me. The thing with talking to older people at bars is they always want to make a big deal about how young you are. Like, wow, you were born in the ’80s, you’re such a kid. Now that I’m older than a lot of the kids, I’ve caught myself doing the exact same thing at punk shows and I wanted to die.
Hardly anyone left the dancefloor when the Whiskey Daredevils finished up. We all waited, trying to sidle into that spot closer to the stage, buzzing like excited atoms in a high school physics filmstrip. A guy with sideburns saw me shimmy into the spot by the stage in front of him and looked peeved. I turned the awkward moment into an opportunity to meet another older rock and roll guy and hear about how young I was. The guy said Shandi and I reminded him of some couple from twenty years ago. I talked to a couple dudes down front from Toledo and another guy who was really into ska. We all shifted nervously, bumping into conversations that we were only half interested in as we watched the stage, waiting for something to happen. Then, without any introduction, Rick Miller stepped out onto the stage and picked up a guitar.
The crowd exploded as, one by one, Dave Hartman, Mary Huff, and a fourth guy with his
face covered in a red beard who I didn’t recognize but whose Danelectro guitar identified him as “Tim,” took the stage. Suddenly, Mary was right in front of us, this shimmering pillar of tights and hair, smacking her lips and teasing her bass guitar. The band broke into “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork,” and the Beachland Ballroom spent the next two hours shaking around to the drums, making air-guitar fingers, pouring sweat, and-the rarest thing of all in any bar in Ohio- smiling.
Seriously, everyone’s face was stretched in a giant dipshit grin. That’s the kind of show Southern Culture on the Skids puts on. Their rock and roll, a goofy, irresistible blend of country, surf, rockabilly and an offbeat sense of lower-class pride, is powerful enough to make the tough guys stop acting hard, which, on a Sunday or in Cleveland, feels like a miracle.
I suppose sometimes people can get carried away. When they brought out a big guy in an Elvis costume and luchador mask for a song, a guy from somewhere behind us got too excited, pushed his way to the front and practically started climbing over Kevin, from Toledo, who I had talked to before the show. Toledo Kevin pushed him off, but the dude kept barging up to him, so desperate was he to slap hands with the luchador. When the two started shoving each other I thought, great, this is just the type of situation where I always end up getting pummeled for no reason. I tried to push them apart, which didn’t work, as it never does for me. A different guy did the same thing I had tried, pushed the interloper away from Toledo and the scuffle finally ended, freeing us to enjoy the rest of the night.
Before they played “Ditch Diggin,'” Mary called for people to come on stage. Shandi and I saw it as at least a good chance to get pictures from a few new angles and rushed up. I missed the instructions on how to do the Ditch Diggin’ dance, so I had to fake it. I felt like there was one step that I was missing, but it didn’t matter much. By the second verse all of my fellow back-up dancers had given up doing the correct dance moves and the situation was devolving into a barely contained riot of women in their thirties. Shandi was at the front of the stage boogieing with Rick while I stood back by the amps, doing the twist and trying to figure out what I was doing wrong with the digital camera.
The time came to play “8-Piece Box,” which usually serves as a kind of climax to any SCOTS show. It’s during this song that Rick invites another group of fans onstage to open a bucket of fried chicken, dance around and throw Original Recipe at the audience. This time, when the song ended they kept one woman on the stage. Her boyfriend came out
with what looked like a massive diamond ring and proposed marriage. She said, “Hell yes,” and the couple shared an instrumental dance. Afterward the husband to be got to introduce the song “Camel Walk” and practice for his honeymoon at the same time as he leaned into the mike and uttered the famous phrase, “Baby, would you eat that there snack cracker in your special outfit for me, please?”
After the encore, SCOTS closed with their own incomparable version of the old gospel tune “Great Atomic Power,” a fittingly religious ending for a Sunday night. The joy and exhaustion we felt after letting the loud music and collective good time briefly relieve us of the considerable burden of our own egos, it was the same feeling as a pentecostal church service without all the self-indulgent wailing and confession of sins. We didn’t stick around to talk to the band, but to me that doesn’t seem too important. What some people have trouble grasping about rock and roll shows is that it isn’t about anything as trite as worshiping some gang of chemically dependent musicians. It’s about freeing ourselves from our crusty, tiresome personalities and creating a space where we can enjoy ourselves for a change.
I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head. Are you ready for that great atomic power, will you rise to meet your savior in the air? Will you shout or will you cry when that fire comes rolling nigh, are you ready for that great atomic power?