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16 years later, Jason still scorches

By Brian Steinberg, May 1998

Nearly 20 years into this thing, Jason and the Scorchers are still going at it like whirling dervishes.

Certainly, that's the scene on a Friday night at Tramps, the New York City roots-music nightclub. The Scorchers have taken the stage scant minutes before midnight, all in an effort to garner support for their new double live album, Midnight Roads And Stages Seen, hitting stores four days later.

True to form, the band is loud. Guitarist Warner Hodges, drummer Perry Bags and new bassist Kenny Ames just kind of stand on the stage, soaking it all in.

Finally, when Jason Ringenberg, the hiccuppy, lanky lead singer takes the stand and belts out the opening line of "Self-Sabotage," the place just explodes. Soon, Ringenberg is jumping and galloping around the stage, the fringe on his shirt keeping time with his frenetic movements.

And Hodges and Ames will eventually spin round and round as the band breaks into classics like "Broken Whiskey Glass," or "If Money Talks." Neither misses a note or a beat, all the more amazing because Hodges has a habit of hefting his guitar around his upper torso while in mid-riff.

Oh, what a rush!

That's the "Self-Sabotage" line that opens the new album and this particular show, and, perhaps, the key to what the Scorchers are up to these days.

The band has survived record company tampering and even a years-long breakup, only to rebound on a smaller record label with what would appear to be thoughts of staying in it for the long haul.

"Jason and the Scorchers has been around 16 or 17 years," noted Hodges in a recent interview in his record company's New York office, one day before the Tramps show, "and the 20th is how far away?"

Ringenberg and Hodges in person provide an interesting contrast to their on-stage antics. Hodges is a technical whiz, interested in the production aspect of the operation - he recorded and mixed the most recent album - while Ringenberg seems more tight-lipped than one might think. When he takes the stage, however, the singer can be downright chatty.

While many bands will put out a live album to fill out a record contract, or close out an era, Ringenberg and Hodges said "Midnight Roads" was a creative step, not something done as record-company "filler."

"We see this as a pretty major creative step," Jason says. "When we do something, we do it pretty hard."

These days, the Scorchers need to keep up their all-out attack. When the band first surfaced back in the early 1980's, no one dared break the conventions of country music as they did.

Ringenberg jumped and hollered, shrieked and preached, and flung himself so intensely into his performance that not even a broken tooth received from bashing his face accidently into a waiting mike could keep him from his mission ("You could see the nerve!" Hodges recounts).

Meanwhile, the band pumped out ragged, twangy covers of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie," or Leon Payne's "Lost Highway" with so much energy that today, decades later, the songs still tear through the stereo speakers.

Now everyone has amped up. What the Scorchers did back in 1982 has influenced some of today's most promising up-and-comers.

If only the band had known, they might not have had to put as much energy into the struggle, fight so fiercely to get Nashville to understand that Gram Parsons could mix well with the Sex Pistols.

By 1985, the band had released a debut EP, Reckless Country Soul, as well as two hard-hitting, revolutionary albums, Fervor and Lost And Found. They had hit their stride.

But then they joined a new label, A&M, which seemed to have little idea about how to keep pushing them to the public. Two albums, Still Standing and Thunder And Fire, didn't fare so well.

After Thunder And Fire hit and missed in 1989, drummer Baggs got diabetes and original bassist Jeff Johnson left. The band split.

But in 1992, the band's original label, EMI, put together a package of the best of their early work, and a new buzz started to grow. A 1993 reunion showed the Scorchers still had the stuff, and by 1995, a new album, A Blazing Grace, turned up on Mammoth.

The follow-up, Clear Impetuous Morning, was a welcome return to the top of their form.

Obviously, the band isn't embarrassed by their misfires. At Tramps, the Scorchers trotted out their A&M work with as much gusto and pride as they did classics like "Broken Whiskey Glass." Despite their firm stance that Midnight Roads is a step forward, it also serves as a grand summation of what the Scorchers have done so far.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ringenberg is still writing about sin and temptation and what it does to people. "You can always fall off," he said. "In a New York minute."

Hodges said fans can expect more of the same, but also little twists and turns to keep it interesting. "You don't want to do the same thing over and over and over," the guitarist said.

He pointed to recent songs like "Uncertain Girl," which contains elements of power pop, and "I'm Sticking With You," a three-chord ditty that shows the Scorchers' quieter side - still with very raw results.

"I don't picture us going off and doing a funk record, but we do want to expand the envelope."