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Niche appeal

Slide and the Irresponsibles get respect

by Brett Milano

[Slide] To borrow a line from George Clinton, Slide are a band who've long been standing on the verge of gettin' it on. The sound they've been aiming for is something that's not often done in Boston -- a Southern-flavored jam and groove that's still raw enough for the alternative crowd. What that's done, often as not, is stick them in no-band's-land. They'd play for Phish fans who thought they were too loud, or for alterna-rockers who thought they were hippies.

Their second album, Whipdang (out this week on their own YNH imprint), is where Slide find their groove. And suffice to say they ain't hippies. But they're not your basic alternative rock band, either. Instead they draw together a handful of good things: a little swamp rock, a little of Los Lobos' spooky groove, a little boho swing à la Morphine, and a bunch of rough-edged guitar rock. New Orleans plays a major part in their musical galaxy -- they're about the only local band I've seen pull off Meters covers on a regular basis -- but so do old-school Boston roots. The disc's one cover tune is by Willie Alexander. And a roomful of local heroes including Alexander, Barrence Whitfield, and Robin Lane will all be on hand for Slide's disc-release party at the Lizard Lounge this Saturday, March 15.

"I accept that some people will hate this album, but maybe some will prefer it to the first one [last year's Forgiving Buckner]," singer/guitarist/main writer Shaun Wolf Wortis explains over drinks at the Middle East with me and organ/accordion player Suzi Lee (drummer Ken Schopf and bassist Fane complete the band). The change of direction was more forced than conscious. Three band members had deaths in their families, which prompted a darker turn in Wortis's songwriting. "And a band like us only has a certain amount of money, so we had the choice of concentrating on basic tracks or overdubs. We didn't do the overdubs, so most of the tracks aren't particularly polished. But we kept working on the basics until we got the ones that felt right."

One would hate to suggest that a band should go through tragedy and poverty, but in this case it apparently helped. The stripped-down studio sound feels livelier than the smoother production on the debut; co-producer Ducky Carlisle experiments with quirky percussion and fuzz-guitar sounds. And the songs reflect the darker tone, but not explicitly so. You don't want to get too depressing on an album called Whipdang. Lee does deal with her mother's death on her one solo contribution, "He Loves Her." More often the writing has on a sultry, voodoo-ish quality. Case in point: "Sugar Fuzz," inspired by a real-life incident in which Wortis was nearly fried by a loose connection in his amp; it's presented as a funkafied ghost story.

They also keep the songs fairly short, with the hardcore homage "Gamma Ray" coming in at less than two minutes. It's the rare rock album that can leave you wanting more instead of fewer solos. "That's probably what sets us apart from the hippie bands; we only go off on a tangent when it feels right," Wortis says.

So why not plug into the Phish-head circuit at the Paradise?

"Because they've never asked us," Lee notes.

"In my experience we're too quirky for that audience," Wortis adds. "I have no problems with them myself, but on a good night we're too aggressive and they don't like us much."

For want of a better niche, Slide have become the unofficial house band at Club Bohemia. They headlined the past New Year's Eve, and they make an annual tradition of Mardi Gras and Bastille Day shows. It's there they're free to go off on tangents -- including the show last year when they opened with the Clash's "London Calling" and proceeded to play that entire double album in sequence.

Wortis admits that before he discovered Dr. John and Los Lobos, it was the Clash who turned him onto roots music. "I learned about American music backwards, just like a lot of people learned about Chuck Berry from the Beatles. We may be a roots band, but I'm not denying that the Clash were one of the most important bands ever."

The infatuation with New Orleans came later, and Lee says it's a fitting thing for a band from Cambridge. "The two cities are pretty similar when you think about it; there's a certain decay in New Orleans that I adore. The natives are actually proud of the fact that the walls are cracked and mildewed, and I think Cambridge is the same way." And it ain't Slide's fault if the doughnuts in Cambridge don't quite measure up to beignets.


It's always a sweet feeling to have the last laugh, and the Scituate-based band the Irresponsibles are currently getting it. Fronted by singer/guitarist Pete Montgomery, the group have been together 10 years, but they could barely get the time of day from the local music community. They released three CDs that didn't sell big, scrounged for low-glory weeknight gigs, and elicited a round of critical indifference. But if local folks didn't jump on the Irresponsibles' bandwagon, Adrian Belew, Matthew Sweet, Jimmy Jam, Pat Metheny, and Steve Winwood all did: they were among the judges in Musician magazine's 1996 "Best Unsigned Band" competition -- and when the results were recently announced, the Irresponsibles were the first-place winners.

"I think Boston is a really tough nut to crack," Montgomery notes when we track him down by phone. He's just played the highest-profile gig he's done with the band -- two Fridays ago at Mama Kin, where the Irresponsibles unveiled their new, four-piece string section -- and he's now exchanging tapes with Belew, who'll be producing their next album over the summer. (Belew's last outside production, for the Christian band Jars of Clay, sold more than a million copies.)

"Boston is a real snobby area; having good pop songs, a good voice, and a good band isn't enough to get people to notice you," Montgomery points out. "One of my goals has always been to come up with something that would make people take interest; and maybe we've done that with the string section. I mean, I've been trying to get into the Phoenix for 10 years."

Since I was one of the critics who ignored the Irresponsibles the first time around, it seemed a good occasion to give their recent CD, Big Orange (Isabelle), another chance. When the disc arrived last fall I gave it a perfunctory spin; I thought the craftsmanship was admirable but the approach was too soft. Playing it again, I felt the same way; there's talent here ("Reinventing the Wheel," one of two songs on their contest-winning tape, is a clever little pop song about writing clever little pop songs), but I hear too much cleverness and not enough urgency. For all the XTC comparisons they've garnered, a slicker band like Crowded House or the Rembrandts would be a more accurate measuring stick. Less encouraging is the way Montgomery overdoes the wordplay at times, and some of the softer songs approach cutesy Angry Salad/Guster territory. My guess is that the Irresponsibles have had a struggle not because pop's unfashionable but because there's already so much good stuff around.

That said, it's always encouraging to see success come to a band with their hearts in the right place, and it's a safe bet that Belew's production will bring out the edge that the current album lacks.

"I've been doing the same thing for 10 years -- same kind of songwriting, same kind of production," Montgomery notes. "For a time everything had to be low-tech, and you were square if you had the lush, juicy production that I like. Music went through the lo-fi stage, the grunge stage, and the hip-hop stage, and now it's coming back to good pop songs."


For the past five years, Shiva Speedway frontwoman Dezaray DeCarlo has been producing shows at the Middle East to tie in with International Women's Day. This Saturday at the Middle East, she throws an "Ides of March Girl Rock Party," including a mix of visiting acts (Sex Pod) and notable locals (Mo Elliott from Victory at Sea, Meagan McLaughlin from SK-70, and Thalia Zedek making a rare non-Come appearance). Opening is Dimp, a new band including ex-Malachite drummer Gay Hathaway.

"Well, we're not into the Holly Near sound," DeCarlo says, "so it's probably on the rawer side. The show's meant to be a showcase, a celebration of these women that have been working on their art in various ways. It's not political, not a man-bashing event -- at least that's not where I am personally." Shiva Speedway, who'll appear on Saturday, have gotten some national notice lately via a positive CMJ review; and they've just finished a CD at Zippah Recording Studios.


Jolene, a hot rock/country band from New Orleans with an album on Ardent to their credit, make their local debut at the Middle East tonight (Thursday) with Boy Wonder headlining. And on the subject of New Orleans, favorite sons Cowboy Mouth hit Mama Kin. The Gravy are at the Linwood; Thought Junkie play the Rat . . . Barrence Whitfield hits Harpers Ferry tomorrow (Friday); Chainsuck are at Bill's Bar with Curious Ritual, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson is at the House of Blues, and Bim Skala spinoff the Pilfers are at T.T. the Bear's Place . . . Vic Chesnutt and the Scud Mountain Boys are at the Paradise Saturday; Sleepy LaBeef hits Johnny D's, Slipknot are at the Middle East, and Pooka Stew play T.T.'s . . . Original member Les McKeown brings his Bay City Rollers to Mama Kin on Sunday . . . More St. Pat's celebrations Monday at the Rat, with a bill including the Dropkick Murphys and the Royal Crowns.

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