Gig Review: Dead Rock West at Great Northern Wine, Ripon
Frank Drennen, dapper frontman and creative force behind Californians Dead Rock West, says he could “lose and arm, cut off a leg, but I’d still do the gig.” Yet last time the rest of the band took this stage, he was languishing in hospital, laid low by an unknown bug. Whether or not this mishap influences their performance tonight, it's difficult to tell – they're probably always this keen and intense – but it certainly adds a dusting of excitement to the atmosphere. The full band is here, and they've got something to prove.
Things start deliberately slow, with the languorous "Drive Me Out Of My Mind", showcasing the band's mastery of the notoriously tricky four-part harmony, and the jaunty march of "Wings Of Angels", which with its plaintive, soulful vocal from Cindy Wasserman and sparse Raising Sand-style arrangement is about as country as the night gets. "This May Be The Last Time", a traditional gospel song that Mick Jagger may have heard once or twice, is brought bang up to date with a tremoloed backdrop, cushioned by outrageous minor-to-major-third bends in the backing vocals.
It becomes apparent that Dead Rock West don't like to stick to any one style for long enough for us to get comfortable. Drennen hates categorisation, and it shows in his music. If absolutely necessary, the first half could be described as spiritual vintage Americana. After the brief hiatus of the delicate "Give My Soul Some Wings", arranged for voices only, the second half of the gig kicks straight into what can only be described as garage rock. Mid-period R.E.M. would be pleased to have written the short sharp shock of "Telephone", just over two minutes of guitar noise and sophisticated attitude, complete with bitter, spitted delivery from Cindy. "Rocket from the Crypt" is apparently a tribute to the eponymous now-defunct fellow San Diegans, despite sounding like a desolate cry for help set to a wall of overdriven guitar.
In short, we are venturing far further than the usual Americana platitudes. Brief, intense, simply deployed except for the pitch-perfect four-part harmonies, the band morphs into something quite different to the gentle balladeers of the start of the set. Fans of the Lemonheads would love it. Whether the seated, gently nodding audience are ready for this somewhat Jekyll-and-Hyde delivery isn't clear – but hey, this is practically punk rock, so who cares!
After the gig, in contrast to the sweet and helpful Cindy, Drennen talks no less intensely than he plays. He wants his band to be huge, he wants millions of people to hear his songs: no quarter, no compromises. Enquiries as to the nature of the relationship between himself and Cindy are met with short shrift. "We used to be married," is as far as he'll go, uninterested in talking about such fripperies. He's dedicated to using his music to show the human condition – imperfection in all its glory. The preponderance of angels, souls and God in his lyrics indicates a deep-rooted interest in the spiritual, and perhaps something of a religious fervour, adding further complexity to an already heady mix of musical styles. The Dead Rock West story has a great deal more to play out – if they can stay away from hospitals.