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An ax man for all seasons
This time, Rich Gilbert goes down the country road

Local ax man Rich Gilbert has a well-deserved reputation as one of the baddest, loudest guitar shredders in the area. From his early days with Human Sexual Response and the Zulus on through Concussion Ensemble and stints with songwriters Tanya Donelly, Steve Wynn, and Frank Black, heís developed a readily identifiable style: lots of wails, lots of distortion, and an affinity for songs with depth and darkness. Black once summed up Gilbertís attitude thus: "If you donít like this note, fuck you!" So now heís unveiling his new band, the Blackstone Valley Sinners, and itís . . . an old-time country band?

Sure enough, and thereís no irony involved. After decades spent dabbling with pedal steel in local country outfits while his rock career took precedence, Gilbert is finally hauling his first musical love out of the closet, dividing his time between the Sinners, whose debut CD, Itís a Sin, has just been released on his own Valley label, and Frank Black & the Catholics, whoíve lately taken on a surprising country attitude themselves.

"Iíve always played country music, but Iíve usually just done it at home," he explains over the phone from his home outside Providence. "When I was a little kid listening to rock music, Iíd always catch something like Buck Owens on the radio, and I loved it, even though it wasnít cool among my peer group. Then there was a point when I was in seventh grade and my brother had a Saturday-afternoon country show on the radio. And that was it, when I got thrown in at the deep end. This was still the late í60s, when country hadnít gotten overly slick yet. It had such color, emotion, and power to it, and it wasnít any particular artist ó I just fell in love with the whole genre."

Gilbert did wind up in one short-lived local country band during the í90s: the Country Bumpkins, where he learned to play pedal steel. But that bandís approach was pretty tongue in cheek ó Gilbert even went by the pseudonym Peckerhead at the time ó and he admits itís a big jump to be playing the stuff for real. "In some ways, itís the other extreme from what Iíve been playing all this time. Iíve just started playing through a very clean amp, so I canít rely on my usual bag of comforting tricks that I spent 20 years learning. But thatís good; you have to do it. You have to backtrack where you canít put yourself in a position of using what youíve come to rely on. You have to put yourself in a position of slight instability, to keep moving forward."

Even for a musician with Gilbertís restlessness, the music on Itís a Sin is a bit of a surprise. Itís not alterna-country or rock country but a traditional sound complete with one í50s number, Bobby Helmsís "Fraulein," and one í20s pop standard, "Itís a Sin To Tell a Lie." The most subversive thing about the disc isnít initially apparent, but the drums are all programmed. And Gilbert works in a bit of everything he can do: filling in textures with steel guitars and toy piano, dashing off on high-speed instrumentals (the instrumental "Intro" is a one-minute catalogue of Carl Perkins licks), playing every string instrument that doesnít run away, and, on "Slater Mill," firing up the old whammy bar and rocking out. The latter is the discís only newfangled track and easily the best of the originals. Elsewhere, things can threaten to get campy, especially when frontman Slim Cessna breaks into yodels. But the good-time spirit is hard to resist, and itís refreshing to finally hear an underground country album that draws nothing from Johnny Cashís dark world view or Gram Parsonsís haunted yearnings.

"Weíre not even drawing from the alterna-country scene, which has become a whole genre unto itself. Most of those bands draw their influence from records like Sweetheart of the Rodeo [Gram Parsonsís one album with the Byrds], where rock went into country. For us it goes back a lot further ó to the Hank Snows, Roy Acuffs, and Ernest Tubbs of the world. We never attempt to be camp, but maybe we do approach it with some slight amount of humor. Weíre not laughing at the genre itself, just trying to be a fun and enjoyable band. It seems that in the world of rock, and probably country as well, itís not hip to make music thatís just happy and cheerful ó but for us thatís a totally valid approach."

The band came together by accident when Gilbert and bassist Judithann (also his wife) teamed up with singer Cessna, whoíd previously lived in Denver, and fronted a band called the Auto Club for a 15-minute set at the Pawtucket Film Festival. And they liked the chemistry so much that they decided to stick with the drum machine, so as not to have to bring another player into the mix. "That does surprise people when they see us on stage. But thereís nothing calculated in our approach, just that we love country music and this is the way we play it. I like to think that weíre opening peopleís eyes and ears to the beauty of this music."

Gilbertís own career reached its turning point around the early í90s, when he had a good reputation and no full-time band. A couple of hot artists offered him some high-profile sidemanís work, but he turned them down flat. "I had a few overtures, but it would have been tough. In those situations youíre not given a lot of freedom, and if you donít like the music itís really going to show." Having missed his shot at the brass ring, heís been happy to play on great records that havenít shipped mega-units ó Donellyís Beautysleep last year, a couple of Steve Wynn albums previously. Although Wynn has since formed a regular band, Gilbert expects to be back with Donelly whenever sheís ready to head into the studio.

But in some ways, Frank Black & the Catholics have been his dream band, teaming him with a cult-hero songwriter who cranks out good material at a ridiculously fast pace. And the band have changed shape often enough to let him explore his passions. The first two Catholics albums were straight-up garage rock. When Gilbert started exploring piano and pedal steel, they shifted to the rustic sound of 2001ís Dog in the Sand. Last fall they did a rock-oriented tour, including some newly unearthed Pixies songs, and that allowed him to start shredding again. Whatís more, theyíre about as spontaneous as it gets. Last year the Catholics released two albums ó Black Letter Days and Devilís Workshop (both Spin Art) ó that were recorded in the same two-month period. On tour last year, they picked from a repertoire of 62 numbers. And Gilbert plans to head back into the studio with them this week for yet another album, for which he freely admits he hasnít yet learned the songs.

"Everything gets done on the fly. I donít know if thatís a strict decision on Charlesís part [Blackís real name is Charles Thompson], but it seems to work. Whenever we go on tour, we like to have a body of songs that isnít the same as the last one, so people arenít seeing the same show. We donít even rehearse that much; we practice for a few days and thatís it. So youíre doing the first show of the tour and youíre thinking, ĎI canít remember how half these songs go.í But then your musical memory comes back, and you fall back into the song ó but you canít remember exactly how you played it before, so arrangements will change from night to night."

With the swing toward spontaneity and Americana, and even some jamming during the shows, itís no wonder that the Catholics have picked up a very non-Pixies audience. I mention that a few of their live shows have turned up on ó a download site populated mainly by Deadheads ó and heís rather pleased. "Iíve maintained for a while that the whole Phish, Blues Traveler, post-Deadhead hippie scene would like what Frank Black & the Catholics have evolved into. Theyíd appreciate the freedom of the band, and the potential for things that can happen in the course of a night. Charles is always moving on ó to the delight of his fans, and Iím sure to the detriment of some as well. There are always going to be some who feel that anything post-Pixies just isnít as satisfying. But weíve become pretty comfortable with the task of doing the Pixies songs ó I know Iím never going to sound like Joey Santiago, but I try to approximate what he brought to it and still make it sound like me."

Meanwhile, Gilbert has done something he figures he should have done years ago: heís started his own record label. "For years Iíve been trying to get people to put out records of bands Iíve been in, and itís been a frustrating proposition. This time I finally said, ĎIf I have to put this out myself, Iíll do it.í " Along with the Blackstone Valley Sinners album, he plans to release music by his occasional instrumental band, the Cornet Premiers.

Local-rock historians, meanwhile, will be pleased to hear that he wants to release the last demo tapes that the Zulus recorded in the early í90s. Reunion gigs are also possible now that drummer Malcolm Travis (who later played in Sugar with Bob Mould, then went to Nashville for session work) has moved back to Providence to raise kids. In the wake of recent shows by Mission of Burma, O Positive, the Cavedogs, and Throwing Muses, the Zulus are one of the few significant local bands from the era who havenít got back together yet. Although reunions have been discussed for years, the usual reason they havenít happened is that Gilbert is just too damn busy. "Youíre always looking for new avenues to go down," he explains. "You want to stay creative and slightly insecure about your playing."

Issue Date: January 23 - 30, 2003
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