Full tilt forever!
Goddamned rock ’n’ roll will never die in this town, if Amazing Sweethearts frontman Grub Dog has any say in the matter
Think back, if you will, to a time when the live-music venues were packed every night, a time when names like Magnolia Thunderfinger and Sex 66 graced local marquees, a time when the bands that drew the biggest crowds were loud bands, fueled by electricity and alcohol, bands that existed strictly for the love and fire of rock ’n’ roll.
Six years ago, a band formed and ended up directly in the center of this rock ’n’ roll fantasy. Since that time, most of the other bands in the full-tilt category have dissolved, their power chords drifting off under the strain of punk, post-punk, emo and electronica. But that single band is still rocking, its three-guitar attack and rootsy songwriting blazing a bright light for the spirit of rock ’n’ roll.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Amazing Sweethearts.
The Sweethearts’ saga really begins further back in time, amid the sleepy small towns that dot central California. Steinbeck country. A place where weekends awaken to cool mornings and, in the fall, the harvest is still more important than costumes and Halloween parties. A place where, in the midst of starlit evenings, the sound of a country-western band can carry for miles.
In this landscape, the founder and leader of the Amazing Sweethearts was raised—a man called Grub Dog. It’s a nickname he has had nearly his entire life; what name he was given at birth seems of little relevance now. What is relevant now is the music.
It begins with a long lineage of country songs Grub heard performed live by his father’s country-western cover band, the Gold Dusters. Grub’s father brought his young son to the band’s various live performances, and Grub was fascinated. The boy began to beat on a Sears-bought drum, learning enough about rhythm and meter to thump out “Proud Mary” and “Wipe Out” with the Gold Dusters at age seven, his first experience performing live music in front of an audience.
From that point, the music got louder and more aggressive. Grub never gave up on country music, but his musical interests quickly strayed to the world of rock ’n’ roll, trading the high lonesomeness for the punky swagger of the Replacements and the rootsy wail of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. It was then that he picked up his father’s battered Gibson SG and started to write his own songs.
Grub formed the Amazing Sweethearts in 1996, when he moved to Sacramento and began playing the open-mike circuit. The band always has had a fluid membership. Former members include Lee Bob Watson, now in Jackpot, and Mark Harrod, who now leads Popgun. The current lineup includes Steve Randall on lead guitar, Rob Meyer on bass, Brent Gee on drums and Joe Kojima Gray on guitar.
The Sweethearts make rock ’n’ roll with the roots showing; you can hear that the band’s principal songwriter came from somewhere small and wants to tell you about it—or, more likely, shout at you about it. This gives the music an immediacy and an honesty that is refreshing despite the risk of cliché; despite the ways in which small-town life has been picked over by songwriters like Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, Grub Dog knows the subject as well or better and brings real understanding to its landscape. He has walked those farm roads and has drunk cold beer from the bar at the edge of town.
That bar at town’s edge—and the music emanating from it—is well represented on the Amazing Sweethearts’ new CD, aptly titled God Damn Rock and Roll, a disc that will be rolled out in style at a release show September 27 at Old Ironsides. The title of the CD, and the song it takes its name from, represents something of an anthem for the band—an encapsulation of everything it represents: a love of damn-the-torpedoes, full-tilt, roots-fueled, electric, shouting-until-your-veins-burst, power-chord rock ’n’ roll music, the likes of which we seldom see in Sacramento these days.
The disc is the second full-length release from the band, and the connections between the two CDs are obvious. “This CD has a real lineage with the debut CD,” Grub says. “The spirit of the first CD was exactly what I wanted to do in rock ’n’ roll.” This spirit helped lump the Amazing Sweethearts into the then-thriving Sacramento alt-country scene. But one song on that first album represented the band’s harder side: “Forever Goldrush,” a song titled after another local roots-fueled band for which Grub has occasionally manned the drum throne.
“ ‘Forever Goldrush’ was the last song I wrote for the first CD,” Grub says. “It represents the sonic blast for everything we’ve done since. The sonic and political overtones on many of the new songs came from that song and how we produced it.” The spirit of loud rock ’n’ roll that is represented by “Goldrush” is the guiding light of the Amazing Sweethearts’ new offering. Every song on the new CD is nitro-fueled. From the first notes of the opening track, the listener waits for the explosion and is not disappointed.
But “God Damn Rock and Roll” is the title track for good reason. As Grub explains, “The song ‘God Damn Rock and Roll’ is the theme song for the band. My vision of rock ’n’ roll is that song. It’s got everything I love about rock ’n’ roll in it. It took me two years to get the lyric right. When I had it, I knew that even if that song was the only good song on it, I still had a good record.”
“God Damn Rock and Roll” is the type of song we don’t hear that often these days: a hard-rocking power anthem like KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” or Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band.” The opening lyric runs: “She let the devil kiss her / She opened up her eyes / She’s staying up all night / Standing at the crossroads beneath the pale moonlight / She’s staying up all night / And she plays rock and roll / God damn! Rock and roll! All night!” Grub’s female version of the Robert Johnson myth is a staple of blues-cum-classic rock mythology: abandoning your soul for the pure visceral joy of music, for the pleasure of rock ’n’ roll.
But the Amazing Sweethearts throw at least one interesting wrench into the rock ’n’ roll works. In a world in which the average band strives to make a great CD and shop it to major labels in hopes of getting signed, the Amazing Sweethearts could care less about fame and fortune. As Grub explains, “We’re so apathetic to the music ‘business’ that we are only now releasing God Damn Rock and Roll, which has been done for two years. When a record is done for me, it’s done—and I don’t really care if it gets into other people’s hands. It’s a great record, but my expectations are low as far as attention and sales. But going in knowing that is actually very freeing. If you know you’re not trying to please other people and just try to make your favorite record, then you give it your all. And we did. It’s a great album, and I owed it to the guys in the band past and present and the songs to put it out so people could ignore it, and they will.”
It’s true that the prospects of rock ’n’ roll music in Sacramento are not quite what they once were, and this is something to which Grub Dog gives much thought. He brings it back to Sex 66, a hugely popular local band that has since disbanded. “Almost the moment Sex 66 quit, the audience changed,” he says. “There was a scene around them, Forever Goldrush, Jackpot and us. There was a potential for a real country-rock scene in Sacramento. There was also the other side of things with bands like Oleander and the Deftones. It was all potential. But only few of the bands broke out, and the rest fizzled.”
It is glaringly apparent that the scene has changed significantly since that time. A venue such as Old Ironsides can pull in a large crowd on a Tuesday night for its “Lipstick” dance night (to music spun by a DJ), but a Friday or Saturday live-music night just doesn’t bring in the same crowds. The situation is similar throughout Sacramento’s live-music venues, and it’s distressing to say the least. “There was a time,” Grub recalls, “where people knew you were from Sacramento no matter where you went. It meant something. Now, nobody gives a good goddamn.”
The Amazing Sweethearts, however, do give a goddamn. Not about getting signed. Not about touring. Not about “making it” in the music business. But about the music itself. “What we’re looking for is kindred spirits. People who believe in rock ’n’ roll the way we do. Even if everyone leaves except four people, at least those four people get it. What the Amazing Sweethearts are doing is real and passionate. It’s about love and immediacy.”
And it’s about goddamned rock ’n’ roll.