Happy Birthday Western Star!
As Western Star Records reached its tenth year, it was time to celebrate this highly respected and predominantly rockabilly and psychobilly record label by means of throwing a birthday party. This meant two days of performances from artists straight from the Western Star roster consisting of the likes of Rusti Steel and The Star Tones, The Cheaterslicks, Frenzy, The Red Hot Trio, Luna Vegas, The Wolftones to name but a few. Therefore, it was highly fitting to celebrate this momentous occasion at home in the centre of Bristol because there really is no place like home.
There is simply no other way to begin other than to relay the truly unfathomable turn of events that unfurled during a rip-roaring return centre stage for Western Star’s jewel in the crown, Jack Rabbit Slim. What should have ended up as a homecoming of sorts rapidly nosedived when a seismic shift in attitude descended upon one of Bristol’s finer music venues as a large proportion of those in attendance decided to leave without so much as a parting farewell. One can only postulate that this was the rockabilly faithful voting with their feet because the constant movement of shadows became a distraction and gave the impression of a sheep dog having to work the nightshift due to a sizeable number of loose stragglers forgotten earlier during the day and now being rounded up into the nearest pen clearly marked EXIT.
The reasoning behind such a mass departure remains an enigma (answers on a postcard please, FLW) as headline act, and the bookies favourite to take home the prize, Jack Rabbit Slim never put a foot wrong during a ferocious set. This was rock ‘n’ roll based on an old recipe of attitude, sex and much vigour and, in the face of adversity, extremely defiant, “We’re still here even though others have already gone home.” Whether it was the new look Jack Rabbit Slim; lead vocalist Bob Butfoy with the appearance of a man having spent the past few months contemplating the meaning of life with only a handful of grunge LPs for company or the incendiary noise swirling like a typhoon on stage is anyone’s guess. In fact, there was nothing abstract (apart from one new number) or indie (Jack Rabbit Slim has hinted at slight changes in direction previously) about tonight’s performance as the band gorged on past material only to break momentum with a light sprinkling of new additions.
The storming opener that was ‘High Tone Woman’ definitely staked their claim for first prize, setting the tone for what was to follow with audience fully in tow. Then a procession of hip shaking, rockin numbers followed suit with ‘Shakerag’, ‘Hangman’s Noose’ and a grunge-lite (see above) rendition of ‘Typhoon’. If that was not enough to convince the steadily departing horde, then a salacious ‘Speed of Love’ and revved up ‘Cougar Town’ added further dimensions to an already mouth-watering set that should have been enough to shore up the leaking vessel. As it stood, Jack Rabbit Slim were relentless in their sonic assault, conjuring up one new and seriously exotic curiosity ‘Devil’s Bone’ as well as dangling the final few carrot sticks with blistering versions of ‘Killer Dilla’, ‘Erotic Psychotic’ and ‘Justine’. The remaining faithful were ecstatic, and rightly so, because this performance was definitely one that warranted such a response. If only the rest of the departed throng could have reserved the same judgement because Jack Rabbit Slim delivered in serious style.
Transporting back to Friday night’s events of all things Psychobilly, The Teenage Zombies kicked up a storm of primitive, tribal psychobilly rock. Sporting an all-in-one outfit that was more Fred Flintstone than Elvis Presley, frontman Ginge pounded out the tribal beats and was equally supported by howling bassist Phil ‘T’ and the more stoner rock than psychobilly Doctor Rich on guitar. With lyrics purporting to doom-laden content concerning a “heart as black as a hole” and “creeping flesh that will drive you f***ing mad”, The Teenage Zombies provided a surging racket that jolted the whole Western Star 10th Anniversary celebrations in motion and, in the process, setting a nail-biting precursor of what was no doubt to come.
The reality that followed was, in fact, less dramatic and more suited to the following day’s events. This, however, did not distract from an otherwise compelling set because The Bad Detectives offered light relief and variation which, in hindsight, displayed expert vision from label boss Alan Wilson. Such a decision became clearer due to the cheeky sense of humour that resides at the heart of this band (‘I’m In Love With The Moleman’s Girl’), something of which is inherent in psychobilly only this time the songs were of an early 60s flavour, with an occasional smattering of rockabilly such as the superb ‘Lay-By On The Edge Of Town’. There was a great swagger about ‘Alligator Rosie’, with ‘Rattlesnake Oil’ rousing in its execution and rightly receiving a rapturous reception. It was left to the closing ‘Surfing The Severnbore’, however, that really sealed The Bad Detectives inclusion tonight as it rode a joyous yet murkier wave compared to the ones the Beach Boys used to harmonise about.
Just as The Bad Detectives exited stage left, Kings Of Outer Space seemed to arrive within a matter of minutes probably due to methods of teleportation us humble earthlings still have not quite become accustomed to yet. Donned in matching blue boiler suits and launching into a succession of edgy, angular sounds, thoughts immediately turned to the post-punk of seminal outfits such as Wire and Gang Of Four rather than the generic gothic horror associated with psychobilly. Intergalactic activity, in fact, is more often than not the focus of the narratives driving the band’s songs with ‘Cosmic Thrust’ lyrically and sonically forcing a meeting with the unknown. Next song, ’44’ is a near neighbour of Kaisers Orchestra complete with accordion that wheezes under duress due to the delusional paranoia at the heart of this song. The desperation seeping through ‘Ghost Town’ really transmitted this evening with anxious sentiments declaring, “Gotta get away, gotta get away” aided by choppy, stop-start fits and bursts of guitar, only to be slightly upstaged in the sonic delivery stakes when the realisation dawns there really is no leaving ‘Gloucester Rd’. All is not lost, however, as the admiration for these interstellar rockers just went skyward in a capsule full of anticipation until the next planetary meeting; thus rendering any notion of imaginary friends completely redundant judging by tonight’s breathtaking performance.
With such a hard act to follow, there was only one option left for Luna Vegas and that was to swing open the doors to the asylum and let the audience succumb to their darkly sinister tales of an encroaching sense of madness. There is no gimmicks involved à la Slipknot because despite the murky tone of much of their material, Luna Vegas possess a wagonload of tomfoolery that bubbles to the surface more often than not. Leading candidate for such an observation during their set was ‘Creek Demons’; a song full of creeping tension that steps into the open once the final floorboard reveals the victim’s whereabouts in a ramshackle onslaught of upright bass and twanging guitar. Once the hypnotic pendulum swing of ‘Danny’s Got A Switchblade’ was greeted euphorically by the now growing throng, lead vocalist and upright bassist Nick Plant responded accordingly by descending further into the looming darkness with a few extra bass clicks and hotly pursued by madness personified Matt Nailor (guitar) who was all mock Dracula “whoo-ha-ha!” when duty called. Just when you thought you had witnessed everything after the magnificent Kings Of Outer Space, up pops a beguiling ball of madness that is at once unpredictable, dramatic and utterly enthralling in equal measures. Long may the lunacy reign for these demon creepers otherwise known as Luna Vegas.
With fangs nestling at the bottom of a glass for their overnight cleansing once the doors to the asylum were bolted, The Epileptic Hillbilly’s conjured up further magical delights but of a different nature. Sitting comfortably with his custom-built guitar, lead singer Billy Oxley gave the impression of a disgruntled cowboy having performed at one barroom too many. This was, in fact, what we got once the grizzled and raucous ‘I’m The Wolf-Man’ blasted out its rockin’ beat and appropriately followed by the equally rowdy and tetchy ‘If Your Name’s Not Down’. The merest hint of country was mangled to the point of barely recognizable as The Epileptic Hillbilly’s offered a warped translation of this genre that is more The Cramps than anything Brad Paisley might have to offer. In fact, The Cramps ‘She Said’ was given the royal treatment with a humorous send-off that served up a memorable finale with the band’s ‘Hillbilly Stomp’ thrown in for good measure as Billy Oxley plucked names out of the audience, who had taken the long haul down, via a Barnsley accent and then Elvis Presley impersonation that literally brought the house down. On this form, The Epileptic Hillbilly’s, with their distorted take on rockabilly with the merest hint of the darkness and humour associated with psychobilly, is one bandwagon worth becoming a full-fledged member.
The final prestigious slot of the evening was bestowed to Frenzy; a three-piece unit with enough noise arsenal in their repertoire to sink a whole fleet of battleships as this was the epitome of LOUD!
There was a real cocksure swagger about Frenzy’s set, with guitarist Steve Eaton roaming the stage in a constant agitated state that was just as relentless as the power chords steering these raw, post-punk numbers. Add to the mixture enigmatic and nearly as energetic lead singer Steve Whitehouse that really brought their songs to life. ‘Misdemeanour’ was one such example as it ravaged over the carcass of its original version in a fit of wild hysteria that was harmonised by the dancing zombies down at the front. Elsewhere, ‘Clockwork Toy’ let out a frustrated yelp with a repetitious, “Don’t wanna be around here no more” which was further compounded with the elusive ‘Hero’ despite its magnificent delivery. A cover of Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’ revealed itself midway through the set and was almost unrecognisable due to its inventiveness. The penultimate announcement was left to Frenzy’s most renowned song ‘I See Red’, which contained more pop edges despite the bass and guitar remaining set to max.
With a raffle Western Star style offering an interlude that was humorous due to the entirety it took to find the winning ticket, the opening up of the amps for one final fling with the blistering ‘Long Gone’ provided a fitting conclusion for a band who are to be admired for the sheer levels of energy expressed that remained unremitting.
With an ecstatic audience heading for the exit taking them out into the night air after experiencing a wonderful succession of psychobilly and not so psychobilly bands due to the variation of styles on display, the first segment of Western Star’s celebrations proved a resounding success and one that will be difficult to surpass. In order to witness the following day’s festivities however, a memo is hastily scribbled consisting of, ‘Must check under the bed before lights out tonight’.
With nothing but pure rockabilly on the horizon, FLW hastily assembled the kitbag and headed out like the Lone Ranger to round up the press coverage for day two of the Western Star 10th Birthday Party.
Once inside the venue, FLW was greeted by the sight of The Red Hot Trio Standing in the shadows along with local champion of the rockabilly flagship Geoff Barker, BBC Radio Bristol, as tonight folks this evening’s performance was under close scrutiny of a live broadcast.
Once the green light was given and the crowd roaring like a hot-rod engine, the Red Hot Trio launched into a pulsating set that peeled back the years by evoking memories of a younger Stray Cats. Such comparisons are inevitable considering lead singer Jimmy Lee’s resemblance to Slim Jim Phantom as the man with the sticks belting out the energetic rhythms and relaying accounts concerning addictions (‘Whiskey Train’, ‘One Too Many Whiskeys’) and departing relationships; small wonder there is desire for escape, “I wanna get away from it all”. For the moment, however, these destructive tales are simply too irresistible to resist as the Red Hot Trio had the audience eating out of the palms of their hands right from the opening bars of a scintillating ‘Devil Woman’, which was enough to suggest the 80s rock ‘n’ roll revival begins here.
Looking dapper this evening, The Wolftones began with a whimper that finally developed into the wild rockin’ beast they are more renowned for once the more familiar ‘I Just Can’t Help Myself’ spread its blues influenced wings. Lead guitarist Sully shook off the nerves to tweak out the opening bars to modern CLASSIC in the rockin’ stakes ‘Hot Rod Car’, and FLW found itself in seventh heaven dancing in spirit at least. ‘Under Your Love’ loosened the mood further as the cogs in The Wolftones machine received a proper greasing with Graham Sanders letting fly on bass and frontman Jay-B ridding the tension from his vocals once the realisation dawned that there was much fun to be had as well. But just as quickly as The Wolftones rediscovered their momentum, it was instantly curtailed due to the unfortunate time constrictions of this tightly run ship of anniversary celebrations. There is clearly much to come from The Wolftones, and FLW is among those eagerly awaiting the band’s next instalment.
Hot newcomers to the Western Star label The Bullets did not disappointment this evening as their self-penned brand of rock ‘n’ roll seemed to escalate to further greatness after each and every song. This was down to such delights as the warring feuds of the American prohibition era ‘Moonshine’; a brooding muscular vehicle that cleared the path for a series of songs that simply failed to understand the concept of sitting still. Step forth the insecurities of ‘Do You Love Me’ that saw Tony Nihill exacting his frustrations on his slap bass; ‘Jump When I Want’ being governed by Brett Waters’ guitar as it drove the song to blistering heights only to be usurped by millimetres in the fiery stakes with the pursuing instrumental of ‘Rattlesnake’.
With The Atlantics stepping out of the contest due to unforeseen circumstances, a void needed to be filled and Alan Wilson once more delivered the goods with surprise package VINCE EAGER! A leading legend from the late 50s onwards, Vince Eager was greeted with much enthusiasm which he gladly repaid during a fantastic rendition of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ and then a gutsy and passionate take on Gene Vincent’s ‘Baby Blue’. Admirably supported in his endeavours by The Bullets, ‘Mean Woman Blues’ pulled out the stops further with Eager’s vocal revealing its strength in depth and in the process whipped the audience into a salivating frenzy leaving Brett Waters to exclaim at the song’s conclusion: “Vince eager, he’s still got it!” After such a performance, there was clearly no disputing such an assertion. It was then left to The Bullets to round off their inch perfect set with the always petulant ‘I Don’t Wanna’ before departing back up the motorway with their ‘Brand New Cadillac’ that brought out a deserved standing ovation.
Hotly-tipped band of the moment The Cheaterslicks lived up to such hype as they let loose with their rockin’ country twang (it’s in there somewhere) that drove this freight train at considerable pace with the wild ‘Bayou Boogie’ leading the charge before settling into a slightly more relaxed rhythm with ‘Don’t Ya Know’. The band brought out the rockabilly in style with ‘Twenty Days A Drunk’, lifted from first album ‘Rev Up, Burn Out’, and strutting beat of ‘Gimme Just A Little Bit’ as clear reminders that something special was brewing way back then. The aptly titled ‘Train Of Tears’ with its riding down the track at breakneck speed to presumably Nowheresville took the plaudits, however, as The Cheaterslicks delivered in style with each member equally contributing to the sum of its parts.
Before the baying crowd declared their love for The Cheaterslicks, there was time for a tribute to Geoff Barker before following, in true rock ‘n’ roll style, with a sleazy portrayal from Paul Lovell Newman (vocals) recollecting ‘Bad, Bad Girl’. On the strength of this showing, it would appear The Cheaterslicks are express bound for greater things.
Penultimate act this evening was Rusti Steel and The Star Tones who, for want of a less worn expression, are the real deal when it comes to authentic-sounding rockabilly and western swing.
Sporting appropriate attire to match the authenticity of the music, there is much to admire here as the Star Tones fronted by Rusti Steel spin with considerable ease yet deftly so with a whole raft of songs of their own making but lightly sprinkled with a few covers. This causes no distractions as the band’s compositions are on a par with the original 45s carefully selected tonight. The finger picking delight that is ‘Café A La Rock’ is one such example brimming with sheer delight that is reinforced with the occasional blasts of jarring steel strings celebrating an altogether different café experience. The rockin’ beat of ‘Prisoner Of Your Charms’ is simply irresistible as demonstrated by Rusti Steel who succumbs to its charms by breaking into a few leg moves of his own. ‘Crawl’ is laced with a delightfully compelling vocal burr as it remains resilient in its demands.
A superb cover of Mac Curtis’ ‘That Ain’t Nothin’ But Right’ finds its mark whereas Hank Williams ‘Mind Your Own Business’ fails to find the same footing as it falls slightly short only for Pee Wee King’s ‘Catty Town’ to pull it up by the shirt collar and restore order. Once more, however, it is the band’s own material that FLW finds most comfort in as ‘Keep It Reel’ with its chugging tempo does exactly that. Hopefully, Rusti Steel and The Star Tones will continue their quest for new material because as it stands their authentic sounds are providing a slice of 50s nostalgia that is difficult to replicate but one in which these Star Tones and their frontman are currently excelling in.
As the evening drew to a close, The Western Star Records 10th Birthday Party proved to be a fascinating mixture of different styles within two specific genres of music. Despite these two specific labels referring to psychobilly and rockabilly, it soon became apparent the reasons for choosing these artists to help celebrate this successful event due to their variations in styles that did not remain steadfast to the overall descriptions given. Not only was this a brave decision but one that is to be commended because the past two night’s showcase events displayed the breadth and depth of the Western Star roster, but also for revealing it as a forward thinking, modern progressive record label. Therefore, it became clearer in terms of understanding each and every band on a much deeper level whereby various different influences are allowed to be equated in the overall scheme of things.
With the Western Star 10th Birthday Party being such a resounding success, it is perhaps time for Alan Wilson to consider an annual celebratory event due to the unquestionable array of talent representing this West Country label. Long live Western Star Records.
Vince eager, he's still got it!"
Brett Waters, The Bullets
FLW - From the Tapes
Record label boss Alan Wilson explained to FLW when he first realised he had a passion for music.
“I’ve loved music since I was a kid during the late sixties and early seventies when record collecting wasn’t really a thing in those days as nobody really valued records until a bit later on. I started by raiding my parents’ record collection and of course they were all from an age where it was all 50s and 60s music. So I guess that’s what gave me that initial love of rock ‘n’ roll and what I call, and I don’t think it’s a proper term, early 60s Britpop. I actually got into trouble at school as I used to get all of my mates to steal records from their parents and I would buy them off of them. I ended up getting caught and was brought in front of the headmaster and had to physically give all of the records back.”
In addition, Buddy Holly was also significant in terms of rockabilly entering the world of the Western Star owner.
“I remember really liking the guitar sound on Buddy Holly records, and I still do to this day. Sonically, the sound of those guitar breaks on Buddy Holly records I can work out what he’s playing but I can’t work out how to get that sound. I remember doing a project at school about Buddy Holly and the deeper you delve [into his history] and go past the hits you realise that Buddy Holly was a rockabilly musician before he hit the mainstream. At the same time, the UK experienced a rockabilly revival when a lot of old 50s records started getting released that hadn’t even been released during the 50s in America, as they had been shelved by the record companies as not being deemed good enough. So there started to be released a series of compilations in the mid-seventies of rare rockabilly, and I was absolutely hooked on all that stuff. So by the late 70s, when the rockabilly revival started hitting the charts in this country with bands like Matchbox, I was right in there and a fully-fledged card-carrying member. I like all sorts of music but rockabilly music really does it for me.”