THE DEADLY SNAKES with the Come-Ons and BBQ at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (April 11), $7. 416-532-1598.
What do Sum 41, D4 and the Datsuns have in common? Well, apart from being hugely popular noisy rock 'n' roll bands trying to live up to their hype, they've all served as openers for the Deadly Snakes.It's become an in-joke for the six members of Toronto's raucous housewreckers that the quickest way to "next big thing" status is warming up for one of their riotous shows. The implicit punchline is that over the seven years the Deadly Snakes have reigned supreme on the local garage rock scene, they've never been considered next big anything.
In fact, not a single major-label rep has even feigned interest in them. So it was unusual to spot Universal A&R point man Dave Porter at the surprise Deadly Snakes appearance at Lee's Palace last Tuesday, where they shared a bill with fast-rising New Zealand punks D4.
"So you think the Snakes are the next Strokes?" chortled Porter, who happened to be hanging with a leathered-up Gordie Johnson.
"Nah," I smiled, "the Band would be more like it." As Porter recoiled with a furrowed-browed "what planet are you from?" gaze, I motioned to the stage where Snakes screamer Andre Ethier was viciously slashing angular chords from his worn white Telecaster over Max "Age of Danger" McCabe's wheezing organ blast and Andrew Gunn's loose-limbed drum battering.
It could've been Robbie Robertson and the Hawks tearing up the Hawks Nest proto-punk-style circa 65. Not that the Deadly Snakes are any sort of throwbacks. Rather, these hipper-than-they-look thugs are now at the point where they're aggressively spitting back in a thrilling new way all the roots-music influences they've absorbed. At least that's my read, but turning to see Porter, still clearly perplexed, made me wonder if anyone else was getting it.
I'd wager Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, had much the same dumfounded look when his star client informed him that his new group was the Canuck touring unit for Arkansas rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins.
Just as young Robertson and company were introduced to the musical riches of Southern culture by an older and wiser road-tested veteran, the Deadly Snakes discovered the many splendours of gutbucket blues, raunchy R&B and ecstatic gospel getdowns through Greg Cartwright of the Memphis-bent Oblivians.
Beyond his role as guitar-playing producer, Cartwright was really the mentor who helped shape the Deadly Snakes aesthetic.
"The most important thing Greg Cartwright did for us," explains Ethier of their former collaborator, "was point us in the right direction. He turned us on to a lot of cool blues and gospel music."
"Yeah," continues McCabe, "all this amazing stuff with people shaking tambourines and freaking out while some crazy evangelist shouts his ass off over top. We just didn't come across those kinds of records here in Toronto."
There's no mistaking the influence of that jubilant gospel sound on the Deadly Snakes' breakthrough album, Ode To Joy (In the Red). There's still a punk rock aggression involved, but it comes with a spirited new swing and directness.
You can hear it in the hand-clapping revival-meeting-style stomp Oh My Bride just as clearly as in McCabe's hard-hollerin' testimonial Mutiny & Lonesome Blues, which brings the album to a sweaty climax. In fact, the Snakes' I Want To Die isn't all that dissimilar to the Soul Stirrers' You Can Count On Me, but let's just call it an homage.
"There is definitely a gospel music influence on Ode To Joy, but it's not our gospel album," clarifies McCabe. "We're not black, we're not from the South and we're not singing God's praise. But hearing the passion that gospel singers were bringing to those records made us want to try to capture some of that excitement in our own music."
That's an important point. Ode To Joy really is the Deadly Snakes' music. There's more to it than writing songs that deal with the dangers of High Park after-hours and West Queen West gentrification. They've managed to synthesize their influences into something completely new and exciting.
To realize their potential, they first needed to break free of Cartwright's grip, just as the Hawks had to ditch Hawkins to become the Band.
"We had enormous respect for Greg and what he'd done before we ever met," explains Ethier. "So when we began working with him it changed our whole group dynamic. Despite the fact that we'd all grown up together and were friends before the Deadly Snakes formed, as soon as Greg got involved we deferred to him.
"When we disassociated ourselves from him it was very liberating. We went back to relying on our core members for direction and suddenly we were doing whatever we wanted, and that felt great."
It's interesting to note that after the Deadly Snakes parted ways with Cartwright following 2001's prophetically titled I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore (In the Red), they didn't bother replacing him with another guitarist.
Instead, they moved in the opposite direction, away from a guitar-heavy garage rock approach to more of an R&B concept where the guitar is used as another percussion instrument in rhythmic support of the groove. The songs themselves now take precedence, and the Deadly Snakes are so much the better for it.
"The main difference between gospel and punk is in the decision-making," reasons Ethier. "Gospel music is all about deciding when to sing, when not to sing, when to strum the guitar and when to bash on a tambourine. Whereas with punk, there are no such decisions; everybody's just playing full-on.
"That realization was a key turning point," confirms McCabe. "Before, we'd think, "We've got seven guys in the band -- everyone needs something to play on each song,' whether or not adding another guitar part was redundant. Sometimes doing nothing can be as good as a well-crafted solo if it serves the song."email@example.com