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A Player's Band – El Roostars
By Tim Roberts
Photos by Ralph Sidway
The structure is one of the expansive, Victorian homes in Old Louisville: red brick, wood, winding narrow staircases that reach up three floors, windows in every room. Previous owners had improved the amenities over the years: carpeting on the stairs, refinishing the balustrades, new appliances and an aluminum sink in the kitchen, a back porch converted to an airy tile-floored family room with plush chairs and a stack of stereo equipment. One previous inhabitant was said to have made amateur porno movies there. He had carved holes in the walls for hidden cameras. Another had rewired the house so that speaker connections were in every room. No one was ever away from music.
Now the dining room and parlor are crammed with keyboards, a drum set, amplifiers, speaker stacks, mixing boards, cassette decks, a homemade rack of guitars lined up like rifles. Hundreds of feet of cable snake over the floor and against the baseboards. In one corner of the parlor is a homemade wooden rack holding a 1970s-era stereo – cylindrical knobs on the sliding volume and balance controls – and a stack of battered eight-track tapes.
In the dining room Eric Whorton – 25, guitarist, narrow goatee, light brown hair tied back in a ponytail – is moving among the equipment there, picking up pieces of paper. The wallcovering is deep green-and-ivory, with scrollwork border at the ceiling. The room looks as if it's wrapped in a dollar bill.
Can't throw anything away in this house," he says. "A cigarette wrapper might have a song lyric written on it." Or an obscure eight-track tape may have a song to provide inspiration.
Whorton is in a crowded room of what's called The Coop, one of about forty names for the Old Louisville headquarters home of the blues-and-funky-old-soul-rooted band called El Roostars. Fresh from a number of gigs in Louisville and the region, this four-piece band, made up of members from Minnesota, Tennessee, and Massachusetts, is preparing for the release of its debut recording. They are four lifelong professional musicians who clearly love to play together. They're loaded with songs, energy and a drive that could send a Sherman tank cross-country without refueling. Their music, as they state, is rooted in blues and old soul. It is melodic, potent and virile, without being loud for loudness' sake.
Plus they have a cool house.
Usually a band rehearses or records in makeshift basement studio. Or, if watched over by the yet-unnamed saint of hard-working, home-grown bands, they are able to score some studio time on the cheap. El Roostars swallows up the entire first floor of a three-story home. Their next door neighbors are just an arm's reach away but have never complained about any loudness. The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane and even semi-fictitious television bands like The Monkees and The Banana Splits all had houses for rehearsal, recording and hijinks. And there was even an El Roostarsmobile, an old Lincoln, donated by a friend, in which they humped from one gig to the next in their early years in Louisville.
Thirty-year-old drummer Chris Burdett later said that an anonymous female fan wants to buy them a Bluebird tour bus, the older kind with the rounded edges, just like the kind used by another band with its own home – The Partridge Family.
She [the fan] gave us that set of congas over there." He nodded toward the colorful pair of drums stationed in front of a television in a corner of the family room. "She said they need to be out into the cosmic firmament."
Then he adds, with the seriousness of an anvil, "She considers us to be her personal messiahs."
Quite a task for drummer Chris, guitarist Eric, bassist Charlie Bock (the one band member who does not live in the house), keyboardist Michael Romanowski (now living in San Francisco but who managed to be on the CD) and vocalist Andy Brown. But they claim they're up to it.
We're ready for Freddie, now," Eric said. "We've busted our butts the last two years. We made a plan. We stuck to it. We worked it hard. We have a very strict. . . ." He glanced at two of his bandmates. They chuckled ". . .loosely strict organization."
We're good for another record," Charlie added.
Eric, Charlie, Chris, and I were sitting on the roof over the house's family room. Andy was somewhere in the house, interview-shy. It was a sunny, warm Monday evening in April. The three of them chain-smoked from two packs of Kentucky Blondes. Chris was cooking a marinara sauce made with big pieces of chopped vegetables and lots of garlic. The smell drifted throughout the house and out the window that led to where we were talking.
Eric continued. "We're a very experienced band. Each one of us has been all over the world, been treated like kings. We've done more work than a lot of other bands, in that we've played with a lot of people. And it took us a couple of years to put this band together."
The brief story of how El Roostars came together sounds almost as if they were assembling an appliance. Individual parts came to Nashville from other cities: Charlie from Knoxville, Chris from Boston, Andy and Eric from Duluth, Minnesota. They assembled in Nashville, then shipped themselves north to Louisville and took root here.
Eric and Andy had been playing together in other bands for years. So had Charlie. So had Chris. So had Michael. They played together in a blues band fronted by Harmonica Red (who appears as a guest performer on the forthcoming release) in Nashville. Life on the blues circuit was tiring, as was the whole atmosphere in Music City. Charlie moved to Louisville. Eric and Andy would, on days off from the band they were with, travel to Louisville and jam with Charlie at the Alley Theater.
We just had to get out of Nashville," Eric said. "We tried to put bands together there. It's just too tempting to go out and play with Joe Blow who's waving dollars under your nose, saying ‘Come out and play with me for six weeks.' So we came up here to hide out."
The plan was to come to Louisville, find a place, turn it into a Fortress of Solitude in which to collaborate, create music, rehearse, think clearly away from the noise in Music City, USA. It worked, but they missed playing. The remedy for that was to get help from Spotlight Promotions, who booked them into gigs at the city's major venues. They opened for nationally touring acts like Steppenwolf, Johnny Lang, Mojo Nixon and others. More people wanted to see them. It was a major alternation to the plan, but one the members of El Roostars think worked well.
Now that they have a CD in the works, recorded at Quad Studios in Nashville, famous for where Neil Young had done Harvest Moon. They also have ambition, a plan and an appreciative audience. So how do they find themselves fitting into one of the Music Meccas of the World, as Louisville was named – along with Bristol, England and Austin, Texas – in the April issue of Playboy? Their individual responses were mixed.
To tell the truth," bassist Charlie Bock said. "I feel completely alienated from the music scene. But there are a lot of hot musicians around here." At 33, he's the oldest member of El Roostars.
But the going-out public doesn't really feed off of that," replied Eric. "It's tough to put [my comments] in a polite way."
Chris, leaning out the window to the roof (after returning to a trip to check on his sauce), said, "I think its amusing that there was this big article in the Scene over a one-word mention in a national magazine." He was referring to the piece about the city's mention in Playboy from Courier-Journal music writer Jeffrey Lee Puckett.
Eric elaborated. "It doesn't do much good to publish an article [like that] here in Louisville. It would be better to talk about Louisville and put it in papers in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Seattle. Then it would make sense to me. Not to put an article in the Saturday paper, saying ‘Hey, your city is rockin', with the bands going ‘No, it's not.'"
The thing that I'm shocked about, coming from a different city," Chris said, "is that a lot of people went to see original music. Cover bands played at bar mitzvahs. Here, it's the other way around. It took me awhile to see how this city's music scene works. But the scene just doesn't get the respect it should."
It's is cooler here than a lot of places," admitted Charlie. "In some places up north, when people go to a show they just . . ." he mimicked a blank, open-mouthed stare ". . . look at you the whole time. People here boogie."
That it was voted one of the hot music spots is kind of funny," Eric said. "Their have always been bands to come out of Louisville – Days of the New, Love Jones. But you know what all those bands do? They leave. Everybody ditches town, which, before we moved here and got settled in, was our plan, too."
The band believes the Uncover show they played at the Brewery on April 2 – along with Engine, Mud Shine, and Creative Element — actually created the feel of a genuine, hot local music scene. Normally the Brewery is empty for any local band that shows up on a Thursday night.
While there are other major cities in the U.S. where musicians get more respect, the scene is dramatically different in Europe, where each El Roostar has played as a member of a different group.
I'd go there in bands that were nothing in the United States," Eric said. "We'd get there for the first show, and the place would be packed with people screaming the band's name. El Roostars would go over well in Europe. They eat up American rock as if it's the 1960s again."
Germany, they maintain, is the best place for American rock, where lines would start forming outside a club at 6:00 in the evening for a show that started at midnight. Patrons would come up to them and say, – Charlie mimicked in a Schwartzenegger-like voice – "You American's are s***-hot rockers."
And that's the kind of enthusiasm," Eric said, "that we're naive enough to believe that everyone has here."
Fortunately we're not afraid to play anywhere," said Charlie. "Maybe those bands who leave here lose that."
That fearlessness – along with the blues-based repertoire – has landed El Roostars is some distinctly nonordinary gigs in Louisville, including Shirley Mae's, a bar on Clay Street in Smoketown, where they made their blues debut.
First white band to play there in thirty years," Eric claimed. The gig lasted for six performances over ten days.
We opened for Tanita Gaines," Chris said.
That night got out of hand," reported Charlie. "She [Shirley] said she forgot to feed us. We didn't get down there early enough to eat, so we got wasted."
Chris said, "When she mixes a drink. . . ." The other band members groaned at the memory. "It's the kind of thing where if you ask for a Maker's and Coke, she gives you the drink and you say, ‘Is this for the whole band?'"
We owned that street, but we had to stop playing there," said Eric, "because we'd bring in white girls to see us and get all the men in trouble. The older men would be flirting with the women, then their wives would come in and drag them out by their ears."
Brent Atnip, famous in Louisville for throwing large parties and inviting a number of hot bands to provide entertainment, is a huge fan of El Roostars and he got them the gig at Shirley Mae's.
On a Sunday evening in early April, Brent threw a Tombstone Party at the Rudyard Kipling. El Roostars joined Ulysses' Fable, the Shannon Lawson band, and others to help Brent raise money to buy a headstone for the grave of his brother, who had died in December. Donations of any amount were accepted at the door.
The back room at the Rudyard where the party took place is a good-sized performance space. Larger than a bar stage, it can comfortably seat about eighty people. One hundred or more would make it tight and potentially violate fire codes. Brick walls and heavy wood rafters in the exposed ceiling suck in sound.
Several times during their set, the microphone used by vocalist Andy went out. Equipment problems are common in any live performance, which can ruin a band's set, but only if they lose total focus on playing. Andy simply moved over to Eric's microphone. The problem was eventually fixed. The performance continued.
Andy Brown, a professional musician since he was in the first grade and played drums in his father's band, is not the kind of vocalist who always needs to be in front of the band. He does not demand that you keep your eyes on him to enjoy the whole band's performance. During some parts of the El Roostars set at the Tombstone Party, he moved off stage with the microphone and stood close to the audience, but not to glad-hand or draw more attention to himself. Even with Andy offstage, the audience looked directly at the rest of the band.
But there was one time when Andy let the audience know he was there. During the climax to a song called "Everything's on Fire," he let loose a thousand megahertz scream that could have rattled the enamel off a set of teeth.
Andy had made only one appearance on the roof with El Roostars early in our discussion. Seconds later he went back into the house and I didn't see him again until after we had finished. He was in the foyer, standing in front of an old upright piano. He's slender, tall, with short dark hair. "Sun get to you?" he asked.
Nope," I said. "I ran out of tape."
He smiled and lit a cigarette. "Yeah. Those guys can be long-winded."
There was a gleam in his narrow brown eyes. He turned and walked down the hall into the kitchen.
A number of factors – admiration, attention to each others' musicianship, acknowledgment of influences and styles and the knowledge that any member could easily go off with another band – allow for such things as Andy singing from somewhere in the audience. Each member brings his own background and extensive experience to the band, which may present problems that the band knows how to cut through.
It's kind of risky," Charlie said. "We all have different things to say musically. So when a song first comes together, it will be like we don't get it. Then we play it and it happens. And we hardly ever play the same song the same way twice."
For whatever it is," Chris explained, "it's our own music. It's not a question about whether or not people are going to like it. We play for each other, whether we're in front of a clubload of people or just a few people. I'm looking at Charlie, Eric and Andy when we play and I'm worried about what they think more than I worry about what all those people think. I hope people enjoy it, but it's really all for us."
Our motto," Eric proclaimed, "is that it's always better to play. We're a players' band."
They're also savvy band members who are willing to forgo the momentary high of playing for long-term ambitions. They had originally scheduled performances over three nights in Louisville: a Thursday night show at the Brewery, then Friday and Saturday performances at Phoenix Hill. But the CD still needed more mastering work. The next available chance to get into the studio to do that would have been in June. So they cancelled the shows to work on their debut recording.
The performances are only small steps in the journey," Chris later said. "Our CD is a goal."
The heavy dedication each member of El Roostars has to their plan and career as a band doesn't seem to wear on their spirits. In fact, it wouldn't be otherwise.
I know a lot of p*****-off musicians," Chris claimed. "That's just a waste of energy, I think. Get angry, get it out, that's great. But just to be continuously bitter about Louisville or Nashville, or wherever you are. . . get over it and do something about it. Don't just shut your door and not do a damn thing."
They finished their discussion on the roof with a few choice and angry words about mainstream radio, test-marketing of songs, public ambivalence about how programming decisions are made, how few stations played anything from the recent Bob Dylan release until after it won the Grammy for Album of the Year, how more and more stations seem to become "all Celine Dion all the time."
People who run record companies wouldn't know a good song if it hit them in the face," Charlie said.
Maybe rock is almost dead," mused Chris. "Maybe it's gonna croak real quick. When we're all sixty we'll sit around and say," here he switched into geezer-voice, "'I rememb'r when people used to play a thing called a git-tah.'
I hope that doesn't happen. I hope rock stays strong and bloody—"
It will," Eric said with confidence. "We're carrying the flag for it. We're gonna be the first ones out."