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October 5, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 29

Great Balls of Fire

Now that his days with the Viceroys are snuffed out, John Paul Keith is ready to light up some TNT with The Dynamatics

by Jack Neely

A couple of years ago I was having a beer at the Bistro with some friends who worked downtown. With a reverence people usually reserve for Genius, they began talking about this guy named John Paul. I gathered that he was a guitarist, singer and songwriter with some kind of eccentric brilliance to him. They told me I should meet him, but I wasn't sure I was presentable.

Later that night we were in a lawyer's Market Street walkup, about four of us grown men and one shy, skinny kid with big glasses. I presumed him to be somebody's little brother, obviously not old enough to drink.

"Who was that?" I asked as he left.

"Didn't you meet him?" my friends seemed amazed at my ignorance. "That was John Paul."

John Paul Keith is his full name, and he was indeed a mere teenager when I didn't meet him. He was already known in some circles for his solo performances on guitar at the Torch and the Laurel Theater, and then for a band called the Filter Kings, which had sold 100 cassettes at Raven and had a brief hit on WUTK called "Snakesnatch Lodge." Soon everybody knew John Paul, lead singer and sometime songwriter for the imperial Viceroys, the band you readers chose last spring as Knoxville's best band in both the rock 'n' roll and country categories. The youngest Viceroy fronted the band with surprising force and charisma.

Then, as the band was playing big shows in Nashville and Atlanta, and rumors of a record deal were afloat, Keith quit. He spent the summer hammering together a band of his own, with Jason Peters on drums, John Wright on bass, and Jamie Akins on keyboards.

Most folks name their band before they learn to play their instruments, but Keith had assembled his band, wrote a dozen new songs, and led several rehearsals before picking a name. It's a word I'm surprised nobody has made up before: the Dynamatics (you'd think either Motown or Chevrolet would have made use of that one). In the very last hour of August, opening for Southern Culture on the Skids before a sweaty, half-naked weeknight crowd at the Mercury, Keith debuted the Dynamatics with their only cover, the Beatles' "You Can't Do That."

Born more than a decade after it was a hit, Keith doesn't know what a big deal the song was to some of us. The Dynamatics are smart enough to give an icon the respect it deserves--but arrogant enough not to ruin it with too much.

"Neverland" is a rolling, hypno-billy number that sounds like the prehistoric Beatles, when doomed Stu played standing backwards on stage. "Welcome to the loser's club," Keith drones, disparaging typical beery music-show audiences. For a guy who's as shy and polite as John Paul Keith, his lyrics have some teeth for the hands that feed him. "Janie's lost her head again ... Drinkin' daddy's credit card and kissin' everyone in sight." Then he apologizes, but it's not likely to make poor Janie feel much better: "I'm sorry I'm so hateful, I can't empathize / But I don't see a thing when I look in some people's eyes."

Fronting for the Viceroys, this scrawny guy jamming his vocals in your face sometimes reminded people of young Elvis Costello. Without a coat and tie, the resemblance is less obvious, but a few of Keith's songs are still Costello-esque, nervous, jumped-up hillbilly R&B, in bitter complaints about impossibly attractive women, e.g. "(You Got Me Jumpin') Outta My Skin." Keith sings in a vulnerable whine that could have come out of the mountain high-lonesome tradition, or the Dylan/Lennon thing, or his own damn self.

When John Paul said his new band would be more R&B than the Viceroys, I somehow pictured something funky. But he meant R&B, Chess-era. "People Will Talk" is an easy R&B stroll that might have worked on big-city race stations in '58.

But Keith's no revivalist. "I hate retro bands," he says, citing Atlanta's rockabilly charades. If Keith's music reminds you of an era, it's accidental. The Dynamatics' sets are blues and country and rock 'n' roll only because everything else is inferior. "New country has no soul, it's processed like cheese," Keith says. "'Alternative' says nothing to me. And I don't have the attention span for anything too experimental. Grunge bands can't play their instruments, get lot of feedback, and call it experimental.

"I hate it all," John Paul Keith says, and smiles politely. In spite of all the solemnly catalogued "evolution" of rock 'n' roll, Keith says the basic forms are still the truest. "To me, there's nothing anybody could do to improve on 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.'"

And don't think he'll be trying. Keith has seen the Killer play that one, but it won't end up on the Dynamatics' play list. "It's a sacred cow," Keith says. This is one choir member who knows he can't sing louder than the preacher.

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