Granddad's rock 'n' roll
The music turns heads and makes necks crane on Main Street. Is this Crazy Wisdom Bookstore? Isn't their usual fare singer-songwriters softly strumming acoustic guitars? What's this rockin' from upstairs? This is Billy Mack & the Juke Joint Johnnies playing - for them - toned down, unplugged.
Not that Billy and the JJJs seem to have made much of a concession to the cozy confines of the Tea Room. Though their PA is probably set only on three, it's still plenty loud enough to drown out the espresso machine, and your neighbors - unless they shout. Drummer Paul Koch has brought his mini bebop kit: the bass drum is barely bigger than a typical snare, and he plays with Hot Rod sticks that produce less volume than standard ones but still allow him to whack with energy. Lead guitarist Kevin Winters happily picks his way through one sizzling solo after another on his Telecaster, while Rick Lee contributes pounding bass lines on a standard Fender and a futuristic-looking electric bass.
And there's Billy Mack. All in black, with the short sleeves of his shirt turned up like on a West Side Story Jet, long disheveled pompadour, reverbed voice, complete with Elvis hiccups and Jerry Lee Lewis screams, he's the picture and soundtrack of the fifties. But his is no slavish impersonation. Billy and the JJJs don't just play this music, they own it.
It's a shame there's no room to dance. The Tea Room is crammed with chairs and tables and sofas. Only the aisle is free, but Billy frequently commandeers that, strutting and slithering along it with his cordless mike, occasionally jumping on one of the few empty chairs, or melodramatically dropping to his knees and offering the mike to an audience member, working the crowd with just the right mix of moxie and excess.
This is your daddy's - maybe your granddaddy's - rock 'n' roll. And that's a good thing. Reliable, sturdy and
as much fun as a '56 Chevy, this is the rockabilly that Grandma and Grandpa danced to before you were a glint in anybody's eye: songs so familiar you can't remember when you didn't know them, mostly rockers, some original Billy Mack gems, and the occasional ballad like the ones the walls of the Tea Room are accustomed to reflecting.
They close the night with "What a Wonderful World," complete with Billy's very credible Louis Armstrong imitation on the bridge, and heartfelt and genuine the rest of the way. The whole crowd sings along. We've been smiling for hours. We've temporarily forgotten about the slumping Michigan economy, the war in Iraq, and global warming. Billy and the JJJs encore with "Give Me Something to Remember You By." They already have.
Billy Mack and the Juke Joint Johnnies return to Crazy Wisdom on Friday, April 4.
[Review published April 2008]