Adaven is not a drug

Local roots-rock band Nevada Backwards plays Americana music, as in California sideways

Winnebago-friendly Nevada Backwards is Mick Stevenson, Troy Kimura, Brian Ballentine and Keith Lionetti: “Hi, we’re a smooth-jazz combo with a medley of your favorite Kenny G numbers.”

Winnebago-friendly Nevada Backwards is Mick Stevenson, Troy Kimura, Brian Ballentine and Keith Lionetti: “Hi, we’re a smooth-jazz combo with a medley of your favorite Kenny G numbers.”

Live! Record-release party at 10 p.m. Friday, December 13, at the Distillery, 2107 L Street, $5 with Folsom Prison Blues and Billy Goat’s Gruff.

Last spring, the Sacramento band Nevada Backwards released its debut CD, Ignorant. It was a brilliant disc, reminiscent of early Gun Club, the Band and Neil Young, but also modern like 16 Horsepower. The future looked bright.

Then, things fell apart. Keyboardist and songwriter Tom Cianci and mandolinist Clinton Duke left the band.

“I was kind of shocked,” said songwriter, singer, guitarist and harmonica player Brian Ballentine. “They left so easy, though. That was [Cianci’s] first time being in a band. My door is always open for him.”

Many bands would have called it quits, but remaining members and lifelong friends Ballentine and drummer Troy Kimura enlisted the talents of stand-up bass player Keith Lionetti and banjo player, mandolinist and guitarist Mick Stevenson to create a wilder and rawer version of Nevada Backwards. Lionetti and Stevenson, seasoned veterans of the touring rock group Mynock, had the chops to hold up with Ballentine and Kimura, and Nevada Backwards barely missed a beat—playing shows in Chico, Yuba City, Tahoe, Reno, Folsom and Sacramento. The group just released a stopgap nine-song CD titled Alleyways, Avenues and Seedy Bars, which features seven new songs and two live versions, kicking out any notion that Nevada Backwards is finished.

You won’t find an effects box, electric guitar or digital anything at a Nevada Backwards show. Live, the band is rawer than a nerve in a broken tooth. Ballentine, whose Brillo-pad voice, exquisite harp playing and demonic guitar work anchors a riveting stage presence, boasts long, cigar-shaped dreadlocks that flop around his intense face like a dust mop. Lionetti and Stevenson jump and shimmy like they are playing in a ska band, while Kimura wrist-smacks his quarter-size drum kit. All the members sing, yip and howl along with the songs. They bridge the Burnette Brothers’ Rock’n Roll Trio to modern times.

Like prefabricated 1960 group the Monkees, the members of Nevada Backwards live together, above their Downtown print shop and rental rehearsal studios, Tortellinni Productions. They travel in a dilapidated 1972 Winnebago and love to play out on the streets before their shows. That’s the thing about Nevada Backwards: The band loves to play. From a full house in Sacramento to a disinterested, tweaked-out audience in Yuba City to a handful of college students walking to class at California State University at Chico, it doesn’t matter to this band, whose goal is to play at Folsom Prison.

Ballentine’s heartfelt songs are full of the stuff that can only be created by an American. His travels to the Nevada deserts and the Sierra Nevada mountains are not for the weak at heart, and the inspiration that he gets from his trips is reflected in his music. Long and lonesome highways, ghost towns, small-town bars and gas stations all find their way into the songs of Nevada Backwards.

Ballentine, who was raised on songs by Alabama and Kenny Rogers, had trouble playing other people’s songs, so he started to write songs instead. “I couldn’t play covers, and I couldn’t follow the band,” he said. “I only know two cover songs—'The Gambler’ and the Dukes of Hazzard theme.”

One of Nevada Backwards’ newest songs is called “Washington.” Its chorus of “I am not afraid” makes it somewhat of an anthem of our times. “It’s about how scared we are, but we’re not admitting that we’re afraid,” said Ballentine. “It’s cool that they want us to be safe and all, but we can’t live like this. We’re just losing a lot of stuff, and basically I’m not afraid of saying what’s wrong.”

“Americana” may be a term thrown around loosely by some music journalists these days. (Even the well-meaning British folkie Billy Bragg has had the label tagged on him.) That said, if there is one band that can legitimately sport the label “Americana,” it is Nevada Backwards.