I was in Dallas once, about a decade ago, and stumbled onto a band with just such heretical leanings. The Bad Livers were set up in a corner of a dingy Texas hipster joint, reeling off sped-up banjo-led versions of classic rock tunes by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. And while the sound of the band was unlike anything I'd ever heard before, it still seemed sorta gimmicky to me. Yeah, they played a handful of old bluegrass covers, and threw in the occasional original, too, but the fact that the bulk of their set was comprised of songs we're all generally pretty sick of hearing in their original versions on FM Classic Rock Radio somehow cheapened the proceedings. It just wasn't quite heartfelt enough to clear the Kitsch-O-Meter. That's where Split Lip Rayfield comes in.
Hailing from the heartland of Kansas, these guys are exactly what the Bad Livers could have been: an all-acoustic, drum-less pack of guys who sound like they spent their formative years alternating between their Doc Watson and Black Flag records, as both influences show equally.
The members of Split Lip Rayfield use traditional instruments -- banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, four-part harmonies, and stitchgiver (an acoustic bass fashioned from an old Ford gas tank, a 2x4, and a single weedwhacker string) -- to play a slightly hickified version of traditional bluegrass music, but with the spirit of true punk rock. Call it thrashgrass, or whatever catchy little name you choose, but these guys play it like they mean it. Songs about truckin', guns, pinball, liquor, and of course, bad love, all find their way into the Split Lip repertoire, and amazingly, none of it sounds forced. I don't care what kind of music you tend to favor; even if you don't like bluegrass or punk, trust me on this one, these guys will make you a believer in one night.
Do not miss Split Lip Rayfield on their second Tucson stop (and their third go-'round overall) to promote their most recent album, In the Mud, released last year on Bloodshot Records, when they hit 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St., at 9 p.m. Sunday, January 9, with Topless Opry and Ricci opening the show. Call 670-9202 for more info.
HEARING ECCOS: It's a pretty safe bet that any album that opens with a spoken introduction by Billy Barty isn't going to take itself too seriously, and that's exactly the case with the tongue-in-cheek More Million Sellers, the newest LP from Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics. A veteran of both seminal garage-surf band Untamed Youth and the acclaimed Dave and Deke Combo, Dickerson recently made his name more recognizable to those outside of his fervent cult with a three-month stint opening for Social Distortion's Mike Ness on his summer solo tour (which included a July stop at Club Congress).
And while Dickerson's sound can safely be filed under roots-rock, he touches on virtually every sub-genre that exists under that broad tag. Million Sellers, for example, contains traditional country ("Broken Down & Broken Hearted"), smokin' rockabilly ("I'm a Wreck"), exotic guitar instrumentals ("Tropical Island Boogie Serenade"), straightforward rock ("Nightmare of a Woman," which features a guest appearance by ex-X guitarist Billy Zoom), jump blues ("Mean Son of a Gun"), and still manages to find time for a jaunty little ballad that could've been plucked right out of the Roy Orbison catalog ("I Gave My Heart Before").
Catch Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-phonics' return to Tucson at 9 p.m. Friday, January 7, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Al Perry and Fourkiller Flats open the show, and admission is a mere five bucks. Still got questions? The Club has answers. Give 'em a ring at 622-8848.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: The Arizona Balalaika Orchestra, a 25-piece Russian folk ensemble which features the voices of balalaikas and domras, accordians, flute, clarinet and gusli, in addition to the Kalinka Russian Dancers, are celebrating their 20th anniversary of annual winter concerts next week. Founded in 1980 by Russian-born Mia Bulgarin Gay, the UA Balalaikas have been under her artistic direction for their duration, and Gay has cooked up a little something special for the big anniversary shows. In addition to the aforementioned, the concerts will feature a roster of guest performers too long to list here, but which will include the 35-voice Sons of Orpheus, who will be joined by soprano Betty Allen and guest soloists galore, including domra virtuoso Iryna Orlova of Kiev. Orchestral selections performed for the event will include the Budashkin Domra Concerto, Sheynkman's Jewish Songs, and the ever-popular "Lara's Theme."
These gala anniversary concerts take place at 7 p.m. Saturday, January 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, January 16, at the PCC Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Advance tickets are available for $10, $8 for students, at the PCC box office, The Folk Shop, Hear's Music and Guitars, Etc., or you can charge by phone at 206-6988 during regular office hours. Advance tickets are strongly recommended, as the last five seasons have sold out.
VIVA VARIETY: And finally, Tucson's own senior variety revue group, The Merrimakers, will be performing a couple of shows in the coming weeks. Celebrating 17 years of performing, this 10-piece ensemble includes several singers and dancers (hula, line dancing and couples), a harmonica player, banjo player, fiddler, pianist and of course, a comedian.
If these folks prove anything with their lively performances, it's that aging doesn't have to mean getting older. See what I mean when The Merrimakers perform at 10 a.m. Wednesday, January 12, at the Armory Park Senior Citizen Center, 220 S. Fifth Ave., and again at noon Monday, January 17, at El Con Mall, 3601 E. Broadway Blvd.