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"Hey, smoke up, Johnny." That's what Judd Nelson's ne'er-do-well character in "Breakfast Club" recalls his father saying after giving the kid his only Christmas present, a carton of cigarettes. It's a name lead singer Alan Wilkins, who everyone knows as Alan Disaster, says he stumbled on while watching TV. Still, perhaps not by coincidence, the dudes in Smoke Up Johnny rock a kind of Judd-Nelson-in-"Breakfast Club" collective style: They all smoke. They all drink cheap bear. They cuss with impunity. Onstage, with beat-up blue jeans, shit-kicker boots, tattoos and permanent circles under their eyes, they look like a band that could kick your band's ass.
It's a pose built on experience. Bassist Matt Floyd, the eldest member of the group, did years of hard traveling and fast living as a member of the fearsome Southern rawk group Go Fast. Jon Rice, the band's drummer and youngest member, formed Bumfish with several of the future members of Tel Aviv before he could drive. Corey Bacon, the band's guitarist, looks pretty fresh-faced, but his ability to flat-out shred belies any suggestion of a come-lately. And Alan Disaster, the lanky, bespectacled, long-haired frontman, has a hard time keeping track of all of his past bands — Chaos LR, Fever Fever, the Trap, the Rock City Symptom, Queen Cobra, Alan Disaster and the Fuckin' A's.
On Friday, the foursome will celebrate the release of their debut, self-titled album with a concert at White Water Tavern. The bar is sure to be teeming. Since forming almost two years ago, Smoke Up Johnny has developed a following few local acts can match. The formula is simple, contends Disaster: "We play good-time music. We play late at night. Everybody gets drunk."
But more than that, the Smoke Up Johnny plays what Rice calls "pure rock 'n' roll," an unmitigated blast of all that's simple and holy about rock. In some ways, it's an ode to barroom guitar-rock gods like Thin Lizzy and ACDC (and lesser-known heroes like the Dictators and the Wipers). Lately, in pop music writ large, that's been a popular path, but the difference between an indie rocker gone ironic down the trail of guitar solos and long hair and an unabashed lover of George Thorogood always shows through.
But in other, more visceral ways, Smoke Up Johnny's “pure rock” stems from unbridled passion. The band members pour themselves into their shows. Everyone convulses at least a little. Everyone gets sweaty. Everyone smokes cigarettes dexterously. Late in the set, Disaster's voice always goes hoarse from hollering, which is usually when Smoke Up Johnny dives into a cover of O.V Wright's (and more famously Otis Redding's) “That's How Strong Love Is,” a soul classic the Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop each tried to muddy up. Smoke Up Johnny does them one better, ferreting out the song's deep-soul core in a sweetly shambolic mess-of-a-cover.
For all the band's raucous energy live, it's no small feat then that the producing/engineering duo of Will Boyd (American Princes) and Zach Reeves (Tel Aviv) have managed to capture the same feel on the group's debut CD. Everything sounds full and clear in the mix with just enough dirt on it to keep things honest. The album features “a lot of cursing and late-night kind of songs,” quips Disaster. There's a track about going crazy; a couple of love songs with the requisite punk-rock sheen (“Everybody tells me you're a waste of my time/and your body's like a scene of a crime…but I want you/baby, anyway-ay”); and a song about a poor little rich girl “who used to catch a bus on 12th Street/now she driving down Kavanaugh.”
Even with all night-moves material and simple, punk-pop lyrics, Disaster isn't afraid to infuse his songs with emotion. “The First Time (I Was Alive)” is a joyous celebration of discovering rock 'n' roll that drips with conviction. “You know it's been such a long time,” he howls. “Since I heard that Chuck Berry record on 45/It fucking blew my 4-year-old mind/I started spinning/running around, I was alive!” “Hey Hey Mr. Wylde” and “Popped Up Collar” pay heartfelt tribute to friends of the band and longtime members of the local music community, Victor Wiley and Steven Calhoun, respectively. The songs roll all the angst, anger, loss, frustration and nostalgia of grief up into two taut, visceral bursts of punk rock.
Put together, “Smoke Up Johnny” is a rock record like Arkansas hasn't seen in decades — essential listening for anyone who's ever thrown up devil horns unironically. Travis McElroy, who runs the fledgling local label Thick Syrup, believes in the band and their music enough that he's leveraging himself: He's invested a chunk of his own money to record, release and distribute the album. “Honestly, even if I didn't make my money back, it wouldn't bother me,” he says. But McElroy's confident Smoke Up Johnny can stand up next to just about anyone. “They're a band who could play with a punk band one night and turn around and play with Lucero the next night.”
Smoke Up Johnny will likely test the out-of-town waters in the next couple of months.
“We'll go to the places were we know people,” Disaster says. “It's more about the faces than places. I want to hang out with my old bros. And rock their asses off.”
In the meantime, don't expect to see the dudes closing down bars and wilding out on the town. For the most part, they're pretty domesticated. Floyd and Rice are married, and Rice and his wife have a newborn. Disaster works at a Hillcrest bistro most nights, and on his off hours, he's reluctant to encroach on girlfriend time.
Getting out of the house: Just another reason for rocking when it counts.
Watch: A short video documentary on www.arktimes.com on Smoke Up Johnny by Deluxe36 and Rock Candy.
Listen: Smoke Up Johnny, featuring Kyoto Boom, Burt Taggart and Drexel, 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, $10 with CD; $6 without CD.
Buy: Locally, via www.lastchancemusic.com.
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