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Odd men in
The Rudds and the Incredible Casuals
Related Links

The Rudds' official Web site

Brett Milano reviews the Rudds

The Incredible Casuals' official Web site

There’s a famous story about the Beatles in Hamburg: during a slow night at the Kaiserkeller, the club owner yelled at them to "Mach Schau" — jump around, act goofy, get people’s attention. John Lennon took that advice to heart, and the world was never the same.

Few bands in town mach better schau than the Rudds. Sure, they’ve got terrific songs and impeccable ’70s and ’80s references — lots of bands do. But few people are more fun to watch than frontman John Powhida. When he jumps off the stage, unleashes his falsetto, and does suggestive things with the mike, you can tell he’s been waiting to use those moves since he saw his first Prince video. And when he shows with a scarf and eyeliner, throwing covers like "To Sir with Love" into the mix, he’s plugging into the time-honored rock tradition of straight guys pretending to be gay.

Which brings us to the second Rudds album, Get the Femuline Hang On. The title track’s a cock-rock anthem about embracing your feminine side, and the entire disc is about having it both ways — being funny and serious, doing heavy rock and old-school R&B. With guitarist Brett Rosenberg, bassist Tony Goddess, and drummer Nathan Logus now set as Rudds core members, the disc serves up their live show in the studio. The charm and flamboyance are there; so are the poignant moments, the stylistic leaps, and the indelible hooks. As on their Rudds 2002 debut, Powhida is backed largely by folks who have their own bands: along with Rosenberg and ex–Papas Fritas main man Goddess, the mighty support cast includes Figgs leader Mike Gent, singer Andrea Gillis, and solo artist Bleu. Not the kind of line-up that comes together just anytime.

"They must all get a kick out of me, and they’re all making me look good," Powhida shrugs when I sit down with the band at the Druid in Inman Square. "People do get a charge because I engage the audience — I’ll put a scarf on my head and be the class clown. That’s good, but I hope they know there’s something serious there too." Goddess is less modest. "We do have a John Powhida Appreciation Society here. I started talking to him buying records at Disc Diggers one day, and my first reaction was, ‘I can’t believe I met this guy.’ There just aren’t many you can communicate with on that level. To me the Rudds are a band that can rock as hard as Cheap Trick, but there aren’t a lot of rock guys who can do the R&B ballads like he can."

Indeed, on the new disc it was Goddess who ensured that three of Powhida’s soul ballads made the cut. It was also decided that Powhida would scrap his plan of making two albums — one a guitar-rocking Rudds disc, the other a soul-slanted solo album with the piano songs — and do one with the best of both. And there was an effort to keep the jokier songs on the cutting-room floor: "Scoopin’ the Poop," a tender ballad about a girlfriend with nine cats, was among the casualties. Could the result get some commercial action? "I think the harmonic and melodic value of popular music has been on the decline since the ’70s, so people need to hear something like this," says Goddess. Powhida shrugs. "Hey, I’ve always been out of touch with what’s popular. How many teenagers listened to War Babies by Hall & Oates?"

You don’t have to be a fellow record geek to love the Rudds, but it helps. Most listeners will recognize "Older Girls" as a cheeky power-pop homage, but not everyone will realize it’s an answer to Cheap Trick’s "Younger Girls." Buried within the rock-and-roll slice of life "Oh No" (in which a band make an ill-advised second album) are references to the marriage of Powhida’s parents and his own career hang-ups plus the chord progression of Prince’s "1999" and a lyrical nod to Randy Newman’s rock-star send-up "I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)."

You can also hear Powhida channeling the voices of Rundgren, Daryl Hall, and Robin Zander. "Those are the people I always wanted to be; I felt challenged by those guys. The urge to write songs and get up there is harder to explain. But it existed in me as a 14-year-old, and it still exists as a 39-year-old." The Rudds have their release party, with the Jumblies and Bleu, at the Lizard Lounge this Saturday.

Sometimes you can’t really appreciate a band until you catch them on their home turf. For years I’d pegged the Incredible Casuals as NRBQ’s country cousins, a perfectly skilled pop-rock band with some good tunes and an acquired-taste sense of humor. Then I caught one of their Sunday matinees last month at the Wellfleet Beachcomber, the Outer Cape surf dive that’s been the Casuals’ stomping ground for the past quarter-century. In front of a built-in audience that included everyone from toddlers to grandpas, they let it rip, playing a few dozen three-minute songs, each one different and lots of them great. There was an effortless chemistry and an infectious good-time feel throughout. And the humor? Well, you had to love leader/bassist Chandler Travis insisting that everyone in the family-centric crowd get shitfaced during intermission.

This summer marks both the Casuals’ 25th consecutive summer playing weekly at the Beachcomber and the release of their first studio album in more than a decade, Nature Calls (Sonic Trout). That quarter-century has seen personnel changes, personal ups and downs, even the near-complete sex change of their drummer. (The former Vince Valium is the present Rikki Bates.) But the Casuals still make it there every Sunday, and Travis, the one constant member, swears the core audience has been there just as long. "That place has been the Holy Grail for us. It’s odd, I’d love to play somewhere else in the world, but we’ve played Boston maybe four times in the past 10 years. Every year at the Beachcomber I always think, ‘Come on, this lucky streak must have eroded by now.’ But we still get the same 100 to 200 people who’ve been there all along. And let’s face it: it’s hard to have a bad time playing rock and roll on the beach."

Many NRBQ fans still double as Casuals enthusiasts, but since the two bands have been friends since 1969, and since singer/guitarist Johnny Spampinato was a Casual before he was a ’Q, the influence likely runs both ways. (With NRBQ in limbo, Spampinato is back as a part-time Casual on the new CD and a full member for the summer run.) Asked about the relationship, Travis hits on what makes the Casuals click. "There’s just a small handful of bands who are openly friendly, who don’t mind if they’re in a picture smiling. It used to be just the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and us. NRBQ has the same problem we do — we both like to fuck up a lot, and we like to do stupid-ass shit. But we hope that doesn’t devalue the more serious things we do."

Nature Calls is arguably their most between-the-eyes pop-rock album, with singer/guitarist Aaron Spade contributing the more straightforward tunes and Travis the quirkier ones; the sole cover is an unlikely ska version of Otis Redding’s "That’s How Strong My Love Is." Travis supplies the September 11–inspired power ballad "Walk On." And the Beachcomber gets invoked on the closing summer- and beach-related songs. "I wanted to save those songs for some other album, but some of the other guys were more psyched about them than I was. They sound like what we did 20 years ago. But we put them at the end, to reward everybody for sitting through all the new sounds."

The next couple of months will also bring Japanese reissues of some early Casuals discs, including a remix of their long-scarce debut, That’s That. And they will of course be at the Beachcomber Sundays until Labor Day.

The Rudds + Jumblies + Bleu | Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass Ave, Cambridge | July 30 | 617.547.0759

The Incredible Casuals | Wellfleet Beachcomber, Cahoon Hollow Beach | Sundays | 508.349.6099.

Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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