The northern insurgence of 40 Rod Lightning
Just one drink. I was gonna poke my head in the joint, press the flesh, dig whoever was playing, down a sarsaparilla, and go home.
I curbed the jalopy across the street and headed toward the Spy Bar on State. Music spilled out --- country music, good country music. 40 Rod Lightning was just rockin' the joint.
I stayed all night.
I danced, I threw darts, and had a natural ball to music, the likes of which I hadn't heard since Hank III last blew through town.
40 Rod Lightning is Rochester's buzz band right now. Not everyone has seen it yet, but has heard the name enthusiastically uttered by those who have. Hear this band once and you'll see why.
40 Rod Lightning is genuine, long-haired subversive country; the post-Nudie suit, pre-Nashvegas strain of Willie and Waylon and Johnny and George and Billy Joe. You know, outlaws. OK, so they don't look all that country. There's a cowboy shirt here or there, but most of the band wears sneakers. And 40 Rod doesn't fly the Stars and Bars. But the sound is 100 proof country.
"Insurgent north country is what we are," says singer Tom Jones.
40 Rod pays tribute to the aforementioned heroes and legends, pens its own tunes, and takes music by bands like Metallica and Pink Floyd and Dixie fries it.
It was all kind of an accident.
Singer Jones and guitarist Jon Lundberg formed The Futon Clan two years ago with drummer Joe Bonfiglio.
Don Anonymous was throwing a 64th birthday party for John Lennon at WaterStreetMusic Hall with Rochester musicians paying tribute to the fallen Beatle.
"Don suggested we do 'Because,'" Jones says. "But we couldn't get it together. Finally the day of the show I said let's just play it as a country kind of thing.'"
It clicked and the band dove into its new sound.
"We were essentially trying to do the alt-country thing," Jones says. "I like all kinds of music. But I didn't really like country growing up so much because of what I was subjected to."
That's because the country sung by Jones' heroes hasn't been on the radio for 30 years. Johnny Cash had to die to get back on the so-called country airways, for cryin' out loud.
Brian Killigrew was the next to sign on. His mandolin and lonesome lap steel playing further solidified the band's rural sound. Bassist Chuck Larsen joined soon after when a want ad caught his eye. Larsen did a double-take.
"I couldn't believe that I saw an ad for an alt-country, insurgent band playing Uncle Tupelo and Johnny Cash stuff that had a mandolin anda lap steel," Larsen says. Larsen had been heavy into Southern rock and had been listening to "A lotta, lotta, lotta Hank III for the past coupla years," he says. The Futon Clan was perfect for him. The name, however...
"Playing country... it had that 'clan' word in it," Larsen says. "And we were kinda scared of that."
"It was a play on Wu-Tang," Jones points out. "But we figured a lot of people that are going to be listening to this band aren't maybe gonna know Wu-Tang Clan."
So the switch was in and 40 Rod Lightning was born. Besides, there was still plenty room for irony and humor in the music, since 40 Rod Lightning's sound and theme is a perhaps a little out of place up in these here parts.
"We're northern white boys," Jones says. "Country people aren't gonna think we're country, so we're trying to be our own thing. We have fun. Some of it's tongue-in-cheek; you know, 'whiskey and killin'.'"
We're getting up there," Larsen says proudly. "We've got threekillin' songs."
And then there's the rock covers the band countrifies. These are tunes that have a classic country, two-steppin'-on-sawdust swagger with lyrics that seem all too familiar. You'll be in the middle of your promenade before you realize you're dancing to Judas Priest.
And that's exactly what happened at a benefit the band played recently at The Elk's Club in Henrietta; guys went nuts when the band broke into "Breaking The Law."
"But there were grannies dancing, too," Jones says.
How to Countrify a Rock Song 101: "I just play the cowboy chords I know," Jones says.
"It's gotta be a song that fits into easy chords," Lundberg explains. "In general it can't be a 'rock' riff. It's gotta have a melody that works. There're certain country rhythms; you vamp on a chord and put those rhythms behind those chords and all of a sudden it doesn't sound like the same song anymore. Jazz guys do this stuff all the time."
Rudiments and theory aside, 40 Rod Lightning just has a great sound, a great rhythm, a great tone. You don't have to be a hillbilly to dig 'em. But like some of the band's country heroes, the group catches hell for skating the line between heaven and hell. Classic country has always agonized over temptation and redemption, salvation and damnation.
When the band played its original tune "Jesus Was A Winner" at a bar out in Hamlin, some folks took issue. Some sample lyrics:
"I'm telling you, Jesus was a sinner
Sure he meant well
He saved you from hell
But he put you in here
Full of boredom and fear
Jesus was a sinner"
"There were some God-fearing folk in the audience that took offense to it," Lundberg says. "And let us know it."
"As most church people that are in a bar at 1:30 on a Saturday night would do," Larsen adds.
But for the most part, the response has been great. For its first gig, 40 Rod Lightning played the clean-up slot after The Ferndocks at Monty's Krown in March. Despite the late hour, intoxication levels, and the audience not knowing exactly what to expect, the band was well received.
"Better than we should have been," says Lundberg.
"I was surprised," says Jones. "A good amount of people stayed to the end. I've been in a lot of bands in Rochester that were pretty much underground, so I'm used to getting three people in the bar wishing you'd shut up so they could talk."
Now they're talking about 40 Rod Lightning.
The boys'll hit the studio this winter and will be gigging more and more around town as the word hits the street. Jones has started bringing his banjo to practice. Onstage he can us it to fend off incoming panties. He is Tom Jones after all.
"It's only happened a few times," he says.
40 Rod Lightning plays Thursday, January 18, 10 p.m. at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 99 Court Street, 325-7090, no cover.