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The Racketeers rev it up

By Jon Weisberger, June 1998

The Racketeers are after you - no, not those kind of racketeers, but rather, as they call themselves, "Bostonıs Infamous Rockabilly Racket."

With a well-regarded CD under their belts and a European tour slated this fall, The Racketeers are ready to break out to new audiences.

"Weıve been together about two years," says the bandıs singer and standup drummer Dana Stewart, "but this past year, weıve really been getting it."

Speaking from the studio where the band was remastering their full-length album originally released last year, Stewart conveys an infectious enthusiasm about the bandıs work and rockabilly music in general.

"I was into the hardcore punk scene as a kid," he says, "but when I followed the music back to the beginnings of rock ın ıroll, what I heard sounded absolutely savage. It was the kind of music that any kid could do."

"Thatıs what their hearts told them to do," chimes in the bandıs rhythm guitarist Jon Porth, "and they went and did it."

Like Stewart, Porth came to rockabilly from elsewhere. "I listened to my fatherıs Johnny Cash records, his Elvis records, things like that, before I really became a fanatic," he says. "In a way I didnıt know what I was listening to. But then I picked up the guitar to play punk rock, heavy metal, that kind of thing, but when I started looking back to the roots, this is what really moved me."

The product of cross-fertilization between what was then called "hillbilly" and "race" music, rockabilly flourished for a brief period in the mid-to-late 1950's before giving way to smoother, more sophisticated sounds - "things were moving very quickly back then," says Porth - but never really died, especially in Europe, where The Racketeers are heading in November. "Weıll be playing the Rockabilly Rave in England, then going on to Spain, Germany, France and Sweden," Stewart says. "Theyıve really kept it alive for years over there, while it was almost dying off in the U.S."

Though both musicians give credit to "crossover" bands like the Stray Cats for exposing new listeners to a rockabilly-oriented sound, theyıre quick to add that what they like - and what The Racketeers play - is a more traditional, "authentic" style.

"I like to hear different kinds of music," Stewart says," but theyıre best when theyıre true to tradition. I like big band to sound like big band, punk to sound like punk and rockabilly to sound like rockabilly."

Porth points out that The Racketeers' use of an acoustic rhythm guitar - his instrument, as it happens - is a big factor in their sound. "If you listen to those old records," he says, "you hear an acoustic guitar on almost every one of them: Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and the rest. Weıre into getting that sound," he adds. "Thatıs what moves people."

Together with standup bass by Spike Katz and hot lead guitar from Tom Umberger, itıs certainly what moves Boston audiences.

The rockabilly scene there, according to Stewart, is growing, with audiences "crossing over from punk and ska," attracted by the musicıs simplicity and attitude.

The Racketeers have done well with audiences outside of Boston, too, winning rave reviews from as far away as England, where theyıve appeared on the cover of rockabilly magazine Continental Restyling ("The Magazine for a Desperate 50ıs lifestyle").

People who complain that rockabilly all sounds the same are "missing the point about the music," says Porth. "There are thousands of songs, and though they might sound the same to outsiders, when you get into it, the differences come through. People can say that about any style of music when theyıre not familiar with it. Rockabilly put a black beat into white music - thatıs the most basic thing about it - and thereıs a lot of room for variety there. Most importantly, these guys were playing straight from the heart, and if you listen for it, thatıs what you hear."

Thatıs certainly what you hear in the 11 songs - all originals - that make up their first full-length album (four of the songs are re-recordings of the material that made up their first release, a 4-song EP released by London-based Crazy Gator Records), and itıs what The Racketeers have put into their most recent recording work as well, including a track for a collection of Gene Vincent covers to be released on Spainıs El Toro label. "We really love that 1956 Gene Vincent sound," Porth says, "and so we took a tune of his from the Sixties and put it back in the '56 style. Weıre really happy with it."

Recording aside, the band is putting most of its energy into touring, not only to Europe, but around the United States as well. "Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago, Cleveland, Wisconsin, Salt Lake City, California," laughs Stewart. "Itıs hard, but itıs hard to have down time between tours, too. Thereıs a level where youıre touring enough to make having a regular job difficult, but not enough to make a real living. Youıve got to put yourselves way out to get past that."

The Racketeers intend to do just that - and, most importantly, to "carry the rockabilly flag," as Stewart puts it. "Iıd like to break out, to let everyone know about this music. Weıve toured with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to help get the word out. Itıs great when the audience is everyone from young teenagers to older folks."

"A lot of people think you have to want to be part of the whole rockabilly scene to enjoy the music. Weıre really into it - thatıs how we got Spike, for instance, who moved here from Toronto after we met him at a rockabilly festival - but not everyone has to be; you donıt have to be into the whole thing. It would be nice to spread out so that everyone gets a chance to hear it."