Hot for Four

It happens every summer. Things get slow. The clubs (the ones that survived) try to conserve cash. Local bands play at venues they might have been crowded out of by national acts a few months earlier. It's a hot time for local music fans.

Recognizing that tradition, we've compiled brief profiles of four wildly disparate local outfits that will be vying for your attention this mean season. Summer's here and the time is right....

Texas Crude
A player's got to play. It's as simple as that.
Tommy Joe Hill formed Texas Crude in 1974 in Austin, Texas. It is no coincidence that the band name is as accurate a description of lead singer Hill's voice as it is a euphemism for the Lone Star State's leading export. Hill and his renegade band of hard-driving country players worked the dance hall/beer bar/rodeo circuit, frequently opening for Willie Nelson.

Willie had a young red-headed stranger playing harp for him A guy named Homer Wills. Wills had been a charter member of the fertile Coconut Grove folk scene in the early Sixties, back when the Grove was still a refuge for artists and musicians. After a stint in 'Nam and some session work in New York, Wills followed pal Jerry Jeff Walker to Austin on a lark and ended up staying there fifteen years.

Homer and Tommy Joe became fast friends and played their share of honky-tonks and pool halls together. In 1989 Wills, his hair no longer red, returned to Miami, played some session work, recorded with the Mavericks, and, in 1992, got married. Hill stayed in Austin, settled a partnership dispute over a small music publishing company (also named Texas Crude), and got divorced. By late '92, he was ready for a change of scenery.

He reunited with Homer Wills and promptly set about reassembling the Texas Crude band. Guitarist Steve Ebert was their first recruit. Bassist Mike Mennell had just returned from a six-month international tour with Latin superstar Chayanne. And drummer John Yarling, one of South Florida's most sought-after stickmen, signed on to complete the rhythm section.

Overnight, one of the area's premier country bands was born. With all due respect to his illustrious cohorts, Tommy Joe Hill's voice has to be heard to be believed. It's one of those husky, gravelly Texas baritones that just reeks of dirt roads and Pearl Beer. Whether covering jukebox favorites or crooning one of his own compositions, Hill is as authentic as it gets. Crude, even.

The Whistling Tinheads
Chris DeAngelis should be a civil engineer. Nobody builds better bridges.
The refreshingly acerbic and articulate songwriter, whose reedy frame belies his voracious appetite for traditional American junk food, is a crafty pop songwriter who melds an absurdist sense of humor with musical influences that run the gamut from Fats Waller and Louis Jordan to Lennon and McCartney. The result is a singular blend of innocuous-sounding tunes and richly textured vocal harmonies supporting lyrics about decapitation. You get the feeling Nick Lowe or Warren Zevon would be pleased.

"Tinheads songs don't sound anything like a lot of the better local rock bands," explains the head Tin. "There's a definite Miami Sound. Funky rhythm section. Emotional vocals A Fro [Sosa], Rene [Alvarez], Raul [Malo], Nil [Lara]. Maybe it's part of the Latin culture. That's not the Tinheads. There's not a lot of emotional histrionics in our tunes."

Instead there are characters like Gordon Greenberg (from the song of the same name), who loses his head -- literally. (DeAngelis describes the tune as "a love story. You know. Boy meets gal.") Then there are the unfortunate souls from "Ten Dead Idiots" -- "Bug-eyed Joe, he was the first to go/Eaten by a cannibal in Borneo." Heronymous Hayes dies of cliches, Clarence Moore gets cut in half by his garage door, and Gerald McCrae's barber gets a little carried away. "Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah" is the soulful lament of a guy whose girl "can't say no to nobody," and "The Night that Cupid Got Drunk" relays the story of the wild evening God's own matchmaker guzzled a few tall ones at the 7-Eleven.

Not your run-of-the-mill rock lyrics. The cockeyed perspective partially explains why it took DeAngelis, a bass player, quite a while to muster a full band of like-minded crazies -- with chops.

"I was in despair," the tunesmith admits.
Good things come to he who waits. DeAngelis eventually lined up an impressive outfit: Fred Butardo on drums, David Chernis on lead guitar, and Paul Feltman (also a member of the Volunteers) on rhythm guitar. Chernis and Feltman write and sing as well, but Butardo prefers to hang back and keep it all together with some of the tightest, tastiest drumming around.

DeAngelis, who writes about 75 percent of the Tinheads' material, prefers his songs unpredictable. He's more likely to quote a time period than a human by throwing in, say, a Seventies-era break just for the hell of it. Not surprisingly, he bemoans the fact that rock and roll isn't dangerous any more, and holds rockers partially to blame for their self-indulgence.

"I can't get into this 'I am an artist' syndrome. I don't need that shit. Just because you can play music doesn't make you better than someone who works on cars. Stop whining! You won't find a lot of 'woe is me' in our tunes."

Raw B. Jae
Like Chris DeAngelis, Raw B. Jae has had a tough time putting the right band together. And as with DeAngelis, part of the problem is an unwillingness to compromise a sound that isn't in vogue.

"It's live rap," he notes. "The labels haven't been into it because we don't play Miami bass, even though we're Miami- based. No one's doing it live in the studio. Some, like Arrested Development, are doing it live on-stage, but not in the studio.

"We're too musical for our own good down here. Hip-hop is all cliches. All the same beats are used over and over. Change the tempo, change the rap, but it's the same beat. We make our own beats with a real drummer and real musicians. We're into creating, not sampling."

True to his word, Raw B. Jae and his posse (Javier Rivera on drums, John Babl on bass, Doug Michels on trumpet, Angel Cerdeiras on percussion, Edgar Inniss on tambourine and backing vocals, and Mel Morley on keyboards) in concert are a wild melting pot of sounds, from KC to Hendrix to Motown to Coltrane to Sly Stone. The common denominator is an irresistible groove, the kind of pumping, slamming funk that shakes the vampires from the rafters of a rock club like the Square at 2:00 a.m. on a Monday morning and propels them to dance.

It's the kind of music that requires commitment. You have to live it to play it. "I wanna play music until I die," says Raw B. "When my thing is over, when I'm like 50, too old to perform, I wanna produce. Like Quincy Jones. I'm always slightly miserable, and I will be until I make it."

Nil Lara and Beluga Blue
At a recent Miami Rocks showcase, a certain music scribe happened to rub shoulders with a coterie of major-label A&R people. The label scouts disagreed about everything from the weather to the quality of the bands performing at the showcase. But the one thing they all decried was the absence of a band that really melded Miami's Cuban heritage with American rock music.

Unfortunately, Nil Lara and Beluga Blue were not featured performers at that event.

Lara is as close to a synthesis of Afro-Cuban roots and American rock as anyone is likely to get. He is to this area what Los Lobos is to the Southwest A a prodigiously talented crossover artist at home in both his native and adopted idioms. You can't grasp the full potential of Latin rock until you've seen Nil Lara and Beluga Blue at the top of their game, working some normally reserved Anglo hangout into a sweaty, hip-shaking, shirt-soaking frenzy. Who else would have the audacity to serve up Pink Floyd's "The Wall" with a Latin beat?

"I listened to a lot of Venezuelan folk music and salsa as a kid," explains Lara, who was born in the U.S.A. to Cuban parents. "When I got to Miami, it was like, 'Pink Floyd? What's that?' I loved it."

While he has no agenda ("I just play instruments that I like, and write what I feel like writing"), Lara does try to stay close to his roots. No sequencing.

A lot of people remember Lara and Beluga Blue keyboardist Albert Menendez from their days with celebrated local rock outfit KRU.

"We signed a development deal with EMI Nashville and made a tape for them, but they passed," explains Lara dispassionately. "It was a great experience, though. We were four egotistical young guys in our early twenties playing all the top clubs in New York A China Club, CBGB's, the Lone Star. I suppose we could have used some management."

In addition to the multitalented Menendez, Beluga Blue are Ricardo Suarez on bass, Varo on percussion, and Mark Vuksanovik (anyone remember Apex?) on lead guitar. Lara, a substitute teacher for Dade County when he isn't gigging, plays rhythm guitar, cuatro, and sings.

"I'm Cuban American. I play music that I like. It just happened. I didn't choose this life. It chose me.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony