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September 19, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 38

Country-Rock Boon

Don't call them neo-hippies: local band Boondocks put a fresh spin on that whole "organic, raw, earthy" thing.

by Mike Gibson

Let's face it; the horse that carried that whole toked-up-post-Dead-funky-shuffle-thang into college-circuit bars all over the countryside is one beat old nag. The galvanizing rhythms and cosmic improvisational mojo that may have once given the Birkenstock nation its raison d'etre have been snuffed, choked out in a patchouli miasma, lost in a thicket of bad facial hair. Oh, what Jerry hath wrought.

But Boondocks have managed to appropriate some of the genre's mystical stoner essence without plying the same old flaccid grooves. This Knoxville quintet has realized the kind of telepathic musical union so many jam bands seek but seldom find, and rarer still manage to fuse with cohesive songcraft.

Their rootsy musings are unabashedly song-based, mapping out some of the same lonesome backwater territory Neil Young and Gram Parsons pioneered nearly 30 years ago. Yet there's also a certain intoxicating improvisational synergy when all of the band's elements conspire— quavering harmonies, cutting guitar leads, the rich rhythmic tapestry of bass, bongos, and drums.

These Boondocks boys don't really have a label for their muse; you can call it post-modern country, retro rock, or buttermilk R&B. But one thing they staunchly refuse to do is swath it in tie-dyes and stencil it 'groove'.

"We were always looking for an organic, raw, earthy sound without sounding like a groove band," says singer/percussionist Mike Lipkin. "We just write straight-ahead songs that come from the heart and reflect our background. You can listen to us and tell we grew up in East Tennessee and ate grits all our lives."

Much of the rural southern charm of Boondocks' music stems from the vocal interplay of Lipkin and singer/rhythm guitarist Mark Campbell. Whether singing in unison or in turn, their tremulous warbling often brings to mind a pair of back porch Gospel wailers milking a particularly mournful hymn, lending each song a certain plaintive authenticity. At times, their vocals hover in an uneasy limbo of microtonal ambiguities, teetering on the brink of dissonance. Yet they invariably regain their equilibrium in a way that resonates as much with the heart as it does with the ear.

Boondocks had its genesis about one year ago when Campbell and Lipkin met over an acoustic guitar making the rounds at a party. They found that they shared a passion for music with a rural flavor and began pounding out original songs as a guitar/drums duo. When they were joined in late fall by carrot-topped guitar player Cap Lillard, a fellow Longbranch Saloon barfly with a hard rocker's penchant for skittering, blues-based leads, the trio decided to preserve Lipkin and Campbell's initial songs on tape. Boondocks, the self-produced CD that captures the band's first studio sessions, is currently available at Cat's Records, the Disc Exchange, and Lost and Found Records on Cumberland Avenue.

The ten songs on Boondocks have a parched, almost mournful ambiance that's much akin to vintage Neil Young. But if you pay attention, you'll find a few suppressed grins poking at the music's solemn countenance; Lipkin and Campbell like to toss off lyrics with a wink and a beefy elbow in the ribs. On "She'd Do the Driving," Campbell ponders a dysfunctional relationship with an ambivalence that's almost comic, somehow managing to sound horny and despairing at the same time. ("She turns me on," he rues in the chorus.)

And at other times, the mood is downright cheerful, full of spry wit and goofball charm. On "My Sign," a quirky porch-rocker, Campbell and Lipkin fuse CS&N with Timbuk 3, giving a nod and another wink to the latter's novelty nugget "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)".

"I get a kick out of writing songs that someone is going to take too seriously," Lipkin explains. "I also like making music that isn't necessarily congruent with the lyrics. It's a device we use a lot just to keep things strange, keep people guessing."

Adds Campbell, "The initial idea for the band was just to make silly country music to make people laugh. We've gone a little farther beyond that, but we still like to keep that sardonic element."

Since recording Boondocks, the band has added former Fat Bastard bassist Doug Engle and drummer Jason Ratliff, allowing Campbell to concentrate on second guitar and Lipkin to explore a wider range of percussive instruments. The new line-up also enables Boondocks to push the limits of its short, hooky songs in live performance, to stretch tight arrangements until they fairly throb with newfound improvisational energy.

It's at those moments, when Lillard's scrambling leads mingle with Engle's staccato bass blips, Ratliff's sturdy beats, and Lipkin's hypnotic percussive mantras, that Boondocks flirts with the G-word. And it's at those moments when the band separates itself from the rest of the jam-happy pack, reigning in its ensemble flights-of-fancy just short of pointless instrumental flagellation.

"Any one of us in this band has the ability to be obnoxious as hell on their instrument," Lipkin says. "When it comes down to it, it's about the songs, about keeping the band tight, about making sense when we groove."

© Metro Pulse