Robbie Gennet's piano melodies are disarming little devils. The creamy rhapsodies trickling from his keyboard sound so classically familiar, so refreshingly catchy. Those rich tones emanating from his Fender Rhodes electric piano reverberate with such comfort but feel so vibrant. At first encounter, Rudy, the quartet Gennet fronts with unmitigated verve and glee, seems the perfect little pop-rock quartet. The band's simple song structures are restrained, yet the musicianship is adventurous. On-stage, the musicians toss knowing looks of approval at one another like Frisbees, their easy smiles and joyful demeanor working quickly to seduce the uninitiated listener.
And then the lyrics sink in.
Blushingly bawdy, Gennet is the Frank Zappa of South Florida. His topics know no taboo; his verses feel no shame. By any community standards, Gennet is out there. Way out there. But he's hilarious. "That's who we are," he asserts, explaining his and his band's penchant for lingerie-laced lines such as "Let me take your panties off with my teeth/I want to see if Chewbacca is hiding underneath," from "Pooter," or "What are you gonna do with all the love you're hiding in your underpants/Maybe we can take 'em off and do a little naked dance," from "The Underpants Song." "That's our sense of humor. That's what we find so funny. A lot of people don't hear what I'm saying, and then when they do ..."
When they do, they usually like it, if the crowd response during recent performances at Power Studios in Miami's Design District and at the Sandbox in Hollywood is any gauge. That Gennet's lyrics would find so many appreciative, open minds into which to filter is not all that surprising, despite their risque nature; they are the natural product of these highly irreverent times. In fact Gennet would probably fare well as a turn-of-the-millennium stand-up comic, though in this case sit-down is more accurate, since he usually remains rooted to his piano bench as he delivers his earthy observations. And his wit is quick, too; his bandmates call him the king of one-liners. At the Sandbox, in less than 30 seconds between songs the wild-eyed singer's banter goes from a simple joke about pool tables to a slightly off-color "Would anybody like to play a game of poon?" to "We could drink some Tang," to "I hear Disney's coming out with a new drink called Winnie the Pooh Tang." No one seems offended. Both the men and women in the club, at least those paying close attention, laugh hysterically. Drummer Howard Goldberg responds with a quick comedic rim shot before the band launches into the next song.
This one is even more familiar than the previous, and though the instrumentation is somewhat twisted, the piece soon becomes recognizable as ZZ Top's "Cheap Sunglasses." But in the hands of Gennet the song is no longer a schmaltzy paean to inexpensive eyewear. He has edited the lyrics: "When you wake up in the morning and the light hurts your head/You look so white and pasty that you'd just as well be dead/You hit them streets a-runnin', and you try to wear sunglasses/To look at the girls with the big fat asses."
Rude, yes. But that's simply Gennet's unflagging ribaldry flowing unchecked and uncompromised. He says the rewrite came to him on the spot during a recent gig at the Speakeasy in West Palm Beach, a regular Rudy haunt and the scene of an upcoming release party for the band's debut CD, Booty. (The following day the band opens the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, the only local band on the bill.) Taking such liberties with lyrics on the spur of the moment is a Rudy trademark. While most of the group's in-concert material is original, the stray cover tune often falls prey to such random Genneticisms.
Van Halen's "Mean Street" is a common victim. So too Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Cool Change" by the Little River Band, or the theme from The Love Boat. "We'd always throw in some covers," Gennet explains, "but usually we'd try to get far out and do stuff that people wouldn't expect. We've done Iron Maiden tunes and a Kiss medley."
All this with an electric piano or a funky Hohner Clavinet as the lead instrument, and no guitar. Blazing six-strings aren't missed; the band does just fine hustled along by Gennet's practiced touch on the keys, Goldberg's crisp drumming, Johnny Gobel's fluent bass passages, and the slick Latin percussion of Rey "Conga" Diaz.
Rudy has been a regular attraction on the South Florida club scene since early 1996. The band went through several line-up changes before the current foursome came together in December of that year. The group's roots go back much further, however. Gennet and Goldberg have known each other since sixth grade and put together their first band, Fart Squad, when both were feeling the first gassy tinglings of puberty. They drifted in and out of each other's bands at North Miami Beach Senior High School and in the years after graduation.
Gennet has enjoyed the most success in the recent past, touring as a sideman in the early Nineties behind Miami's Saigon Kick and for the past two years, when called upon, with Orlando's Seven Mary Three. (He's on tour with that band through October, taking days off so Rudy can make other H.O.R.D.E. appearances in Charlotte and Atlanta.) In 1997 he released a CD titled The Dream, credited to the Robbie Gennet Band, with the help of area musicians Groovey (currently guitarist with Company Kane), drummer Eric Larriviere, and Sixo bassist Debbie Duke.
Because of Gennet's semiregular touring schedule, the other members of Rudy keep busy with side projects as well. Goldberg does session work and has played drums in orchestras for numerous theater productions. He makes a living working with well-known drummers and percussionists as artist relations director and product manager of instructional books and videos for Warner Bros. Gobel, who says he was strongly influenced by his parents' collection of Motown singles as a kid, is currently rehearsing with former members of rock/soul band Skin Tight, a local band he played with for four years. Diaz, whose long musical history includes groups such as the Baboons, the Leopards, Neutronics, and the African-influenced percussion group Okan, has made appearances of late with keyboardist Noodles and, with Goldberg, playing percussion behind former Saigon Kick singer Matt Kramer in his new solo project. Despite their numerous outside collaborations, however, the four musicians stick together in the freestyle, jam-oriented Rudy, they say, because they have all grown tired of chasing the much-ballyhooed recording contract.
"The initial game plan was to have fun," Goldberg explains. "To remember why you started playing your instrument. We'd all been through the whole 'Let's get a deal, let's get signed, let's bust our ass seven nights a week rehearsing and passing out flyers at all the clubs.' And then everyone comes to the realization after a while that ain't gonna work. You can have a good time, get out there and do what you want to do and still attract attention."
Rudy started the attraction process by booking shows without benefit of prior rehearsal. The fledgling band would simply take the stage and improvise. Two songs were often all that was necessary to complete a 45-minute set, Gennet spouting off nonsense lyrics as the chord changes came to him. "We just played and the songs changed so much from night to night," he recalls. "The songs had a loose-enough structure that we could just jam them out. If you saw us two nights in a row you'd see two different shows."
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After close to 150 such performances -- the group was averaging three per week while maintaining other musical commitments -- they began to tape their shows, listening intently afterward to each recording to see what they had created. From that point some of the previously impromptu grooves solidified into something they could repeat. Actual songs developed. That led to the group booking studio time at Associated Audio in Fort Lauderdale earlier this year for the tracking of Booty, which they completed just last month. The disc features one melodious composition after another, all cut with the sneaky humor of Gennet's saucy lyrics. References to panties and porn stars abound, as do those devilish piano riffs. Is he afraid of angering anyone in the audience? Hardly. Like most local musicians, Gennet's biggest concern is that South Florida residents just won't care.
"Let's be fair: People aren't listening down here. I dare anybody reading this article to go out, see a local band, and buy one of their CDs. I dare you. I double dare you. We're not playing the H.O.R.D.E. Festival for nothing."
Actually, they are, but money isn't what he's referring to. The band got the slot after entering a competition, sponsored by a tobacco company, earlier this year. That "Band-to Band-Combat" success secured Rudy and 29 other unsigned bands from around the country a spot on the festival's Second Stage at 40 venues across the United States. Rudy also landed a track from Booty, "Brownies & Lemonade," on a CD featuring those 30 bands. (The CDs will be given away at the festival to adults 21 and over.) It's unlikely that H.O.R.D.E. audiences will see anyone quite like Rudy, though. "We can't compare ourselves to anybody but ourselves," Gennet contends, "because we're not even thinking about what else is going on in the scene."
Rudy plays Monday, August 17, at 9:00 p.m. at the Speakeasy, 521 Clematis St, West Palm Beach, 561-833-8936, no cover charge; and Tuesday, August 18, at the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach, 561-793-0445. Gates open at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $22.50.