Return of the monster boogie | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Return of the monster boogie 

Raging Slab's Def American debut, Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert, is rife with fragments of the 70s: Lynyrd Skynyrd's southern blues boogie, Blue Oyster Cult's heavy rock hooks, Grand Funk Railroad's braggadocio, ZZ Top's riff-drenched electric blues, Bad Company's pure hard rock. But Raging Slab doesn't just gorge on the past and spit it back out. They extract a wealth of hooks from these various bands, then punch them into a harder, meaner rock hybrid, injecting it with a shot of serious funk. A heavy-metal muscle flexes through the whole shebang.

There are a few similarities to Seattle's Soundgarden, whose "Rusty Cage" approximates some of Raging Slab's metal fury. But the blues erupt with such force on most Raging Slab tunes that to label the group strictly a metal band would be a disservice. And Raging Slab is too sophisticated in its time changes and lead work, and too unashamedly dedicated to pure rock, to get lumped in with the grunge pack.

Three guitars generally provide more power than most bands can handle. Not so with Raging Slab. Singer-guitarist Greg Strzempka holds down the rhythm fort while slide guitarist Elyse Steinman lays down scorching bottleneck washes over it; that leaves lead guitarist Mark Middleton to bend and drill his strings where he will, and he usually points toward the Allman Brothers' deft blues stylings, updating them with a rougher rock intensity.

One of the things that sets Raging Slab apart is their ability to rocket boogie into a new decade while retaining its primal force. They owe a great deal to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they're looking to other sources as well. The chicken-clucking guitar style that stutters through classics like Jerry Reed's "Amos Moses" and Merle Haggard's "I'm a White Boy" is goosed into megaproportions on "Weatherman"--the band plants that popping guitar riff down in the middle of a scorching funk powerhouse. Three guitars grinding and stinging around clattering drums make this song a heavy power trip indeed.

The slower tunes reveal the true breadth of Raging Slab's talent. Strzempka isn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, so there's no smirking when the band brings in a string section for the heartbreaking "Lynne." You can't heap enough praise on "So Help Me," one of the finest contemporary country songs around. This passionate jaunt back to Gram Parsons territory proves the band has a rich field to mine long after its head-bangin' days are over.

But for now monster boogie rules the day. Against the ferocious musical backdrop Raging Slab's words go whizzing by, so it's mostly the choruses that stick. "If you don't like the weather / It won't get no better / If you shoot the weatherman" is pretty good advice. "Lord have mercy / And god say what / Lord got plenty / And man have not" is a decently catchy rhyme with some meat on it. "My baby ain't ugly none / No she ain't ugly none / My baby ain't ugly none" is dumb fun that keeps you humming while the band is cooking. It's good to have these fairly straightforward choruses to hang onto, because the bulk of Strzempka's lyrics are pretty obscure. Lines like "Goin' forth in blindness / Goin' first in lastness / Your purse all full of green glass--gone broke / It'll bite your hand in trespass" from "So Help Me" are indicative of his style. It's not the kind of verse that trips easily off the tongue, and it's a wonder it doesn't get garbled in the telling. Surprisingly, Strzempka's high, scratched-throat delivery makes it all flow.

Raging Slab isn't embarrassed about its love for prepunk music. "The annointed purveyors of the dynamite monster boogie" is how they're described in the liner notes on their new release. After seeing them live at a recent sold-out Lounge Ax show, I heartily concur.

One would be hard-pressed to find any current bands with such a formidable catalog of 70s power chops. But Raging Slab's ferocious, metal-tinged rock didn't feel like anachronism or tribute. It stood on its own, a revved-up, rebuilt engine fashioned out of customized parts, one that runs better than the original. Main ax wielder Middleton churned out leads with a devastating precision, the kind that would wilt most other contemporary pretenders to the boogie throne. Bassist Alec Morton and drummer Paul Sheehan never let the thundering bottom falter for a second.

Lookswise, Raging Slab is a modern exemplar of Lynyrd Skynyrd's buckskin-and-denim hippie-biker spirit. The guys have obviously been growing their hair for a year or five, while Steinman, clad in a multicolored midriff top and belted hip huggers, opts for a Jane Fonda Klute-era shag. But like their music, the band's threads haven't been adopted for their kitsch value. Here Raging Slab is indebted to punk, specifically to Johnny Rotten's simple statement on Some Product Carri On--"These are the clothes I feel comfortable in." Raging Slab runs with that idea, offering no apologies or explanations.

Steinman's truly unique guitar is shaped like the USA, complete with cutouts of the Great Lakes. Although her slide playing sometimes got lost in the guitar onslaught, she's still one of the select few since Keith Richards who can credibly dangle a cigarette in her mouth while playing. Strzempka was the main man though, a shirtless guy in a Jesus beard and love beads sweating and shouting at his mike. He seemed driven to bring the monster boogie concert back to the people, intent on putting all those 70s fragments back together in one dynamite package.

Across the packed room, somebody in the crowd shouted "Free Bird!" This facetious request for the 1973 Lynyrd Skynyrd song has been hurled at thousands of bands. This time, though, it was a suggestion that made some sense. Raging Slab has proved that, with some intelligent retooling and a lot of heart, soul, and sweat, there's gold buried under the 70s dreck.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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