Strutting His Stuff

Black Cat Bone (Alligator Records)
Lee Rocker

By Kevin Gibson

I had lost interest in music for a while during my middle teen years, but a friend introduced me to a band called Stray Cats. I was immediately dragged back into the fray, renewing what has turned out to be a lifelong obsession with song.

Stray Cats, for me, injected renewed energy into the Buddy Holly, Beatles, Elvis Presley, etc., songs my parents played relentlessly during my formative years. I was hooked on that stuff, to be sure, but 1970s radio and the shallow aesthetic of popular music had turned me off. Thank goodness for 1981 and Brian Setzer's intricate licks and songs about cars, girls and rockin'. Just like that, Stray Cats, along with other emerging groups such as the Cars, the Knack and the Romantics, had made music fun again.

So when I took a trip to Cleveland recently - with that same friend who had played Stray Cats for me all those years ago - it seemed a no-brainer that we would check out a show by Lee Rocker, the standup-bass-playing Cat from the band that solidified our standing as music nerds. And the show was so fun and energy-filled, we bought Rocker's new CD, Black Cat Bone.

Rocker had provided backup vox for the Cats and even sang lead on an album track called "Drink That Bottle Down" during the band's heyday. Yes, the guy can sing. And interestingly, he's still a rockabilly fiend. The show featured his takes on "Rock This Town" and "Bring It Back Again," and the CD is rockabilly from start to finish, although with a slightly rougher edge to it and a bit more jangle in the guitars.

The difference now is that, in a way, I feel like I have moved past the rockabilly revival. While this kind of music is timeless, there's something in my psyche that keeps telling me, "Ah, you covered that ground already." Always in search of new approaches and sounds, I think my brain is now, ironically, having a hard time getting past the constraints of the genre.

That said, the album as a whole is an enjoyable, beautifully recorded collection of music. The lead-off track, "Gone" (which also grabbed us at the concert in Cleveland), is proof enough that Lee Rocker can write one hell of a good rock 'n' roll song. It's a lonely story about a guy who returns to his home and consequently to his old haunts, only to find everything had changed during his extended time away. It's a revelation in song and carries a great hook and some restrained and appropriate musicianship.

Rocker and his band also turn an impressive, almost power-pop rendition of Bob Dylan's "One More Night" that manages to find a welcome home in this collection. "Lost Highway," a country standard of sorts popularized by Hank Williams, also finds a home here, along with a swinging original called "Sold Us Down the River," an interesting country-fried rocker about a female race car driver called "The Wall of Death," the catchy and gentle story song "Sometimes You Win" and a well-executed (if melodically simplistic) ballad called "What I Don't Know."

To help things along, his backing band is tight and professional. Guitarist Brophy Dale has an amazing knack for knowing just what a song needs to keep it from going over the top or becoming cliché and the deft backing vocals are perfectly placed and real.

But the failings here may be more glaring, even if they are outnumbered by the victories. The title track is easily the most apparent of the downfalls - it's basically a rewrite of "Stray Cat Strut," the second big hit for Stray Cats that rocketed them to stardom. That Rocker chose to call attention to it by making it the title track only escalates what feels like an attempt at capitalizing on throwback success.

"Rebel" has a similar effect (reminiscent in subject matter if not tone of the Stray Cats' "Rebels Rule") and track nine, "String Bass, Guitar and a Drum" is a song about the Stray Cats themselves - utilizing several of his former band's song titles in the lyric. OK, Lee, we get it: You were a Stray Cat.

I don't mean to sound negative about one of my musical inspirations. Without Rocker, I may be listening to pop country or Top 40 right now (shudder). I guess what I'm saying is that Lee Rocker probably has the chops to cut down on such pandering - at least based on some of the material here.

I realize the guy has to make a living and the Stray Cats got him where he is, but hey, the Cats still tour frequently in Europe, so why not separate the two? I'm not saying stop it with the rockabilly, but Rocker would earn more love from the music nerds and critics (are the two synonymous?) - and perhaps sell more CDs and tickets - if he simply did his own thing with maybe an occasional wink and nod to his musical legacy.

Rocker's band will be in Lexington in late January AND early February, with a show at Covington's Southgate House sandwiched in between. Maybe I'll head up there, pay tribute and suggest it to him myself. If you're looking for a good rock show, I'd highly recommend it.

Hear song samples and learn more at www.leerocker.com.