By Barry Gilbert
The Del-Lords brought their A game to St. Louis on Oct. 18. But they ended up playing before a too-small crowd, an unfortunate consequence of the Cardinals finishing off the Dodgers to win the National League pennant just three miles down Broadway at Busch Stadium.
No matter. The lucky three-dozen or so at the Off Broadway music venue who kept their ears focused on the music (and one eye on their cell phones for the score) were amply rewarded. The reunited Del-Lords performed as if the room was full, swaggering through a 14-song set that included a healthy selection from their initial run in the ’80s, a few from this year’s “Elvis Club” CD and a couple of killer covers.
It was the kind of show that reinforced why I love rock ‘n’ roll. As Del-Lords guitarist Scott Kempner says, quoting his friend, the music legend Dion DiMucci: Two guitars, bass and drums; it worked then, it works now.
Does it ever. New York City’s Del-Lords – songwriter Kempner on rhythm guitar, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel on lead guitar, Steve Almaas on bass and Frank “I Play the Drums” Funaro – are quintessential roots rockers, whose influences range from blues to country to ’50s/’60s teen pop.
The band’s St. Louis gig was a return to what Kempner calls its “spiritual home,” the place where the musicians learned their craft in 1983 after recording demos in Springfield, Mo., under the tutelage of mentor Lou Whitney. (Read Kempner’s and Ambel’s recollections of that summer at stltoday.com.)
The Del-Lords kicked off its set with a cover of the Flamin’ Groovies “Jumpin’ in the Night” and had the crowd dancing in place for the rest of the show. The band may have changed its ’80s leathers for jeans and T-shirts, but none of its enthusiasm has ebbed. As Kempner and Ambel took turns on lead vocals, Almaas and Funaro stayed locked-in on rhythm, eye contact and huge grins.
The band recorded four studio albums from 1984 to 1990, and the set list included favorites from those such as “Cheyenne” (“picture me, a city boy in God’s country,’ sang Bronx-born Kempner), “I’m Gonna Be Around,” “Get Tough” and a great version of “Judas Kiss” with Ambel singing lead.
The new “Elvis Club” CD, recorded over a two-year period following the band’s reunion tour to Spain in 2010, was represented by “Flying,” “Me and the Lord Blues” and “When the Drugs Kick In.”
Back in the day, Kempner and Ambel split lead guitar duties, but Ambel handles most of them now. Kempner told me that when the band got back together, he was blown away by how much Ambel had grown as a guitarist. Between Del-Lords incarnations, Ambel fronted his own band, Roscoe’s Gang; played lead guitar in bands such as as the Yayhoos and Steve Earle’s Dukes; and produced and played guitar on countless records, including those by St. Louis’ Bottle Rockets.
“I mean Eric was always great. He was the first time around, and he’s like light years beyond what he was in the ’80s as far as I’m concerned,” Kempner says. “We always split the guitar solos on the records. This time, I didn’t even want to touch it. I just wanted him to play all the solos. I think I played one solo on ‘Elvis Club.’ And I was coming off a solo record (‘Saving Grace’) where I played all the guitars.”
Ambel’s playing at Off Broadway was consistently spot on, never flashy for flashy’s sake, always in service of the song.
The first encore featured Funaro singing lead on the kit-workout “I Play the Drums,” followed by Ambel channeling Neil Young on “Southern Pacific.” And as the lights came up and folks started heading for the door, back they came with Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman to wish St. Louisan Chuck Berry a happy 87th birthday on “Bye Bye Johnny.”
Sadly, Henneman’s guitar got lost in the mix at Off Broadway, but his contributions to the band’s three-guitar attack on “Bye Bye Johnny” the next night at a house concert were gloriously audible (watch video above).
Diesel Island, featuring Henneman and Kip Loui, opened the show, with the always muscular country cover band bolstered by Son Volt’s Mark Spencer (Blood Oranges) sitting in on guitar. Spencer, a frequent figure on St. Louis stages, traded lead duties with Henneman on the band’s mix of outlaw and traditional country and Southern rock.
The Del-Lords’ setlist:
1. Jumpin’ in the Night (Flamin’ Groovies)
2. True Love
4. Burning in the Flame of Love
5. When the Drugs Kick In
7. Judas Kiss
8. How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? (Blind Alfred Reed)
9. Get Tough
10. Me and the Lord Blues
11. I’m Gonna Be Around
12. I Play the Drums
13. Southern Pacific (Neil Young)
14. Bye Bye Johnny (Chuck Berry)