Rockabilly band keeps its edge

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 48

Ben Friedman has had enough.

He’s sick of watching upper-middle-class boys start dull alt-rock bands so they can whine about their problems. And he’s tired of seeing Nashville pump out cloned country music stars who sing about lost love at the ripe old age of 13.

But instead of just complaining about it – which is what most music critics have been doing for about five years now – he’s doing something about it.

Friedman leads the Cigar Store Indians, a rockabilly band playing tonight at the Citi Lounge in Perrysburg. They play music from rock and roll’s first trimester, back when country and rock were still cobbled together in the music of people like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

“We’re just hillbillies trying to be cool,” Friedman said in a slow Southern drawl from his home in Georgia.

The Indians are not Friedman’s first project. In the late 1980s, he fronted I.B.M., an alternative band signed briefly to MCA.

But when that band broke up, Friedman decided that he wanted his next act to focus on the music he grew up with, “what my mom and dad made me listen to in the back of the car.”

Thus were born the Indians, formed from a group of kindergarten friends from Crab Apple, Ga. Their second album, “El Baile De La Cobra,” was released Tuesday.

The band plays more than 200 shows a year, and they put on a near legendary stage show, full of gyrating pelvises, shaking bodies, and sweat.

“I’m having such a good time on stage, I think that plants little seeds out there in the audience that makes people forget about some of the things that went on in their day,” Friedman said.

One of the traditional problems with rock abilly is that so many of its songs sound alike. But the Indians sidestep that problem through strong songs and a host of little touches that show they’re trying to make the sound their own.

Certain songs, like “Forget” and “Little Things,” have a distinctive old country feel, as if they came from the hands of troubadours like Faron Young or Johnny Horton. But they don’t fit in with the polished pablum – carbon-copy cowboys and a row of indistinguishable blonde women – the Nashville music scene has been putting out.

“There’s no way we could be a country act right now,” Friedman said. “Nashville has just decided to close the door on a lot of music and go into another area.”

There’s enormous irony, of course, in that the Indians have been trying to make music of an era, music they’d call “timeless,” at a time when rockabilly is suddenly, inexplicably, hip again.

Quasi-rockabilly acts, ranging from the Rev. Horton Heat to some acts on the periphery of the just-won’t-die swing movement, seem to be everywhere.

Suddenly, rockabilly is hot. Friedman doesn’t care.

“We don’t try to be pretentious with all this stuff,” he said. “`We’ve been doing this for six years, playing this kind of music. We didn’t try to be cheeky, or cliche, or flavor-of-the-month. This is just our version of what American pop music should be.”