With a new, definitive live album just out, it’s
time to take a fresh look at one of America’s greatest (and
Springsteen-approved) rock ‘n’ roll institutions.
BY REV. KEITH GORDON
suck to be you, because if you’ve never witnessed the power and the glory that
is a live performance by Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, then you haven’t really
walked on the wild side! The Reverend remembers one memorable Houserockers
performance in Nashville back around ’95, Joey G and the boys bum rushing the
Music City, rolling into town for a live radio broadcast from a local speakeasy
that may have blown out a few transistors down at Radio Lightning.
gang was crammed onto a corner stage so damn small that it’s doubtful you could
park a Mini-Cooper in the middle and still have room to climb out. It looked
like the inside of a clown car, but there was nothing funny about the
destruction that the Houserockers leveled upon Nashville that weeknight. With a grand total
of three people in the club who had the foggiest notion of who they were watching
perform, and another 100 or so that were there to get a cheap drunk on,
Grushecky and the Houserockers performed like they thought they were damn rock
stars and, on that night, they were indeed the greatest rock ‘n’ roll outfit on
unseen walls of the stage became too restrictive, Joe jumped on top of our
front-of-the-stage table and laid down a solo on the Stones’ “Gimme
Shelter” that was so bad-ass that it would have had Keith Richards hiding
beneath his bed sheets for months. Knocking down two hour-plus long sets, the
audience may not have known who the band was coming in, but they sure as hell
knew who they were by the end of the night…and that’s always been the unspoken
mantra of the Houserockers wherever they play live – come in hard and heavy, or
don’t go onstage at all.
the last true believers in rock ‘n’ roll as salvation, Joe Grushecky and the
Houserockers are lifers, working day jobs and howling at the moon in clubs at
night. It’s somehow fitting that the only significant personnel change
experienced by the band since its formation out of the ashes of the Iron City
Houserockers back in 1988, almost a quarter-century ago, was waiting for
Grushecky’s son Johnny to grow old enough to join the band.
of the Houserockers – singer, songwriter, and guitarist Grushecky, bassist Art
Nardini (who’s been by Joe’s side since the early 1970s), drummer Joffo
Simmons, and keyboardist Joe Pelesky – has developed an unparalleled chemistry
over the course of two-and-a-half decades and better than a half-dozen studio
albums. Still, aside from furtively-traded bootleg tapes, this most independent
of indie-rock bands (they haven’t had a real label deal in 15 years) had only
been captured live on disc once
before now, on 1999’s excellent Down The
Road Apiece Live.
The band’s new
We’re Not Dead Yet (Schoolhouse Records; available at Grushecky’s website) ups the ante with
two CDs and twenty-one songs, only three of which duplicate songs from Down The Road Apiece Live, and most of
which are long-time staples of the Houserockers’ live set. Recorded at the New Hazlett
Theater in the band’s Pittsburgh hometown during a two-night stand back in September, We’re
Not Dead Yet mixes material from the Houserockers’ fleeting,
late-1980s/early-1990s major label era albums like 1991’s Swimming With The Sharks and 1995’s American Babylon with tunes from indie
releases that you’ve likely never heard of like 2009’s East Carson Street or the 2006 Grushecky-solo-album-in-name-only A Good Life.
interesting to we few long-time Grushecky fanatics, though, are the
brain-numbing morsels of Iron City Houserockers’ material to be found on We’re Not Dead Yet, from the defiant
title track (more about which later) to long-lost-and-left-for-dead gems like
“Pumping Iron,” “Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive,”
“Junior’s Bar,” and their jaunty cover of “Hideaway.” But
first We’re Not Dead Yet opens with
the title track from East Carson Street,
a pensive mid-tempo rocker that, lyrically, covers more heavy emotional turf in
three minutes or so than Joe’s bud Bruce has managed over the course of his
last three albums. The guitars sparkles, the sentiments ring true, and the
claustrophobic wall of sound behind Grushecky’s literally explodes out of your
speakers by the second verse.
time that the band rocks its way into “American Babylon,” the title
track from the album of the same name, they have the punters hanging off the
rafters. The song’s “troubled by these days and times” lyrical theme
is reinforced by a fierce soundtrack that is reveals a slightly funkier
rhythmic groove via Joffo than on the original album. Grushecky’s vocals snarl
and growl like a caged beast, and the societal turmoil expressed by the lyrics
is, sadly, as real today as it was sixteen years ago when Joe wrote the song.
Grushecky isn’t all doom-and-gloom, however, and songs like “I’m Not
Sleeping” (co-written with Springsteen) and “Coming Home”
display the full range of Grushecky’s enormous songwriting skills, the master
story-teller delivering tales that speak positively to the human condition and
capture the listener’s imagination.
the signed album cover hanging on my wall, Rock
and Real really should have been a smash hit back in the day, and the
band’s stellar remembrance of it here features shimmering guitars, hard-hitting
drums, and an undeniable bass line that muscles in behind Grushecky’s romantic
plea. “I Always Knew” is an often-forgotten gem from the songwriter’s
deep, rich catalog of songs, a muscular rocker with uncompromising spirit,
percussive drums, washes of guitar, and a heavy rhythm that combines a hard
rock heartbeat with a bit of Memphis soul.
vintage Iron City Houserockers tunes finish up disc one, “Pumping
Iron” a strutting, Southern rock-styled rocker with serpentine guitars
twisting themselves into knots, a propulsive rhythm, and a bit of twang in
Grushecky’s Steel City brogue, the song itself a story wrapped up in a
metaphor, hidden behind an ode to Pittsburgh’s mean streets. Introduced by Joe
as “the closest we ever came to having a hit record,” the obscure
Fred & the Fredettes early-rock classic “Hideaway” sounds all the
world like a Houserockers original, with Grushecky’s yearning vocals, trembling
twin guitars, blistering drumbeats, and an overall innocence that is lacking
from much of today’s rock ‘n’ roll.
vintage track, “Swimming with the Sharks,” kicks off disc two with an
chaotic din, drums crashing and guitars ringing as the band launches right into
the unbridled rocker. Grushecky’s low-slung vocals are driven by a locomotive
rhythm, the band’s backing harmonies add to the gang-fight vibe, and rather
than clubbing you over the head, the guitars hit your ears like a stiletto slid
between the ribs. Grushecky gets the crowd involved with some shouts and
handclaps, rolls into a stream-of-consciousness rant that quotes John Lee
Hooker, and finishes big with a razor-blade-on-eardrums guitar solo that
performs an aural exorcism and chases all those evil thoughts of cheesy pop
music right out of your pretty lil’ head.
“Everything’s Gonna Work Out Right” is a mid-tempo romantic
affirmation of life and love that offers some Little Stevie Forbert-styled
harmonica blasts, Simmons’ energetic, high-in-the-mix drums, and Grushecky’s
gravel-throated but charming vocals. Another East Carson Street track, “Chasing Shadows,” pretty much
sums up Grushecky’s life-is-grand philosophy, delivering a positive (and wise)
message hidden inside a crash-and-bang rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack brimming over
with laser-sharp guitars (I swear that one solo reminds me of Duane Eddy),
jackhammer drumbeats, and an overall joyous noise that will have you tapping
your feet in spite of yourself.
and Bloody Ground” is one of the best of Grushecky’s recent Springsteen
collaborations, a historical story-song with disturbing lyrics that hit your
brain like a pointy stick. The smothering instrumentation swirls like a
rampaging tornado behind Grushecky’s blue-hued vocals, guitars conflicting with
the drums, voices shouting out in the darkness, the powerful message reminding
us that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Another
Bruce co-write, the award-winning “Code of Silence,” is slighter in
nature, but only slightly ’cause the instruments still collide like exploding
stars, Grushecky’s vocals strain to rise above the stunning fretwork, which
itself rises with the drums to a malevolent crescendo of noise and fury.
of the Rev’s favorite Iron City Houserockers songs are reprised to good effect.
“Have a Good Time…But Get Out Alive” was a sort of motto for my biker
buddies and myself back in the 1980s, a street-smart tale of youthful energy
and stupidity with whip-smart lyrics and a blustery backdrop of loud-and-proud
guitars, bass, and drums. On the I.C Houserockers’ sophomore album,
“Junior’s Bar” is prefaced by the wonderfully melancholy “Old
Man’s Bar”; delivered here, it’s a joyous ode to freedom sans context, but
it still rocks like a house on fire.
bittersweet angst is barely hidden behind Grushecky’s deceptively forlorn vocals and the bouncy
instrumentation, the idea of that place where everybody knows your name a
fleeting notion once they “kill the neon lights.” It’s an
unrecognized rock ‘n’ roll classic with more brains and brawn that anything you’ll
hear on the radio these days. We’re Not
Dead Yet closes out with “A Good Life,” from the album of the
same name, and this album’s title track comes from the aforementioned I.C.
Houserockers’ second effort.
is a delightful celebration of the seemingly mundane treasures in our life –
kids, pets, a loving wife – that we too often take for granted. It’s every bit
as defiant as “We’re Not Dead Yet,” a working class credo that states
authoritatively that you can be happy where you are. The latter song,
“We’re Not Dead Yet,” is sort of like the Black Knight in the Monty
Python movie, a spit in the eye at everybody who would conspire to keep us
down, keep us broke, keep us unhappy and strapped to the yoke. Grushecky spits
out the lyrics with punkish intensity and speed, barely heard above the
gathering stormfront as he shouts “don’t count us out, we’re not dead
father/son guitars strike your ears like rigid black lightning, the cascading
drumbeats bounce around your brain like thunderclaps, the throbbing bass floods
your senses, and only the keyboards offer a semblance of sanity. This is rock
‘n’ roll as redemption, rock music as catharsis, rocking just for the hell of
it, and a snarling, grinning, gnashingly defiant message that was written long
before anybody ever thought of the “1%” or occupying anything, a
primal howl up from the streets from those of us down in the gutters, the bars,
the back alleys of America wondering where our slice of the damn pie is going
to come from. In Grushecky’s hands, however, the song says “we’ve already
won, because we’re STILL here!” It’s rock ‘n’ roll as survival, and nobody
has done it so well, or for so long, as Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers.
and his bandmates are blue collar rockers who may never hit the top of the
charts, or be noticed much at all by the unwashed masses mindlessly chasing
after the next American Idol winner.
They don’t demand your respect so much as they earn it every time they walk out
on the stage. We’re Not Dead Yet is
the definitive live document of this underrated band, and if you’re looking for
some old-school rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills that will rattle the plaster off
your walls and won’t make you cringe in embarrassment, look no further than Joe
Grushecky and the Houserockers.