May 20, 2014

Kim Lenz & The Jaguars: high octane rockabilly

Kim Lenz is a rockabilly dynamo, and her new quartet of Jaguars is one of her best bands ever, but it’s still a music experience that most New England fans haven’t heard. That’s the frustrating conclusion one gets after Lenz and her band played a typically torrid 65-minute set at tiny Atwoods Tavern in Cambridge Sunday night before a ‘crowd’ of about forty fans–forty delirious and giddy fans, but just forty nonetheless.

To quickly recap, Lenz got off to a fast start after beginning her musical career with some fellow students from University of North Texas, becoming popular around her Dallas base, and turning out two stellar albums in 1998 and ’99. But after that she stepped back, and the San Diego native started a family. But as her son got a bit older she began venturing back into the studio and eventually into touring. Lenz was back for real with the release of 2009’s “It’s All True” album and its subsequent national tour.

Lenz, now 45, released her fourth album, “Follow Me,” (Riley Records) last August, and is near the end of a lengthy national tour, whose easternmost gig was last night’s Cambridge show. Her little boy is now 13, and Lenz is fronting a sizzling foursome of roots rockin’ virtuosos. The new album’s music finds her delving into more sophisticated styles, although still grounded in rockabilly. Several personal travails, including the 2012 death (at age 35, from oral cancer) of Maine guitarist Nick Curran, who’d been a key part of her band since the 2009 comeback, have colored the songwriting on the new album.

Lenz is an invigorating performer, and Rolling Stone, early on, described her as the closest thing extant to a female Elvis.  A statuesque redhead whose pouty lips carry a natural sneer, she can also sing with power and raw emotion, and even deliver a full array of Presley-like whoops, yelps and yodels. Crafting new tunes in the classic rockabilly style is not the easiest task, but Lenz does it with elan, and a good helping of self-referential humor.

Sunday night’s show opened–after a brief squall with the soundman, who insisted she use the house mike instead of one of the five custom jobs she travels with–with Lenz roaring through a vigorous take on “Saturday Jump,” a brightly swinging shuffle at warp tempo. The current Jaguars consist of Joel Morin on Guitar, Ramon Espinosa on guitar, Santos DeLeon on drums, and Shorty Poole on acoustic bass. It’s a dazzling quartet behind Lenz, who plays her own amplified acoustic guitar on most songs, and the interplay between Morin and Espinosa really elevates the music to another level.

And for the record, the sound mix was pretty good, although Lenz’ vocals could have been higher in a couple spots. But the rhythm section, and the two lead guitars, came through distinctly, an important detail when so much of the new band’s appeal is the contrast and interwoven lines Morin and Espinosa play.

The raw impact and fast pace of 1998’s “You Made a Hit” got the audience involved early. A song Lenz co-wrote with Big Sandy, “That’s the Breaks,” worked in a lower, rumbling kind of register, making for an even more infectious rockabilly sprint. As the night went on Lenz’ set was a nice combination of material from the last album, and chestnuts from her first three CDs.

“Follow Me,” the title cut from the new CD was introduced by the singer as ’50’s exotica..or perhaps ’50s erotica..” There was no doubt the song carries an added measure of sensuality, both from Lenz’ sultry vocal and the lowdown and heated guitar lines. The older “Zombie ‘Fore You Go” shifted the mood to a comical romantic aftermath, a kind of ‘oh no’ morning-after vibe.

Classic rockabilly like “Kiss and Tell,” from her first album set the stage for a clear view of how much Lenz’ new record displays growth. With that template ringing in our ears, the next tune was “Pay Dearly” from the latest album, a tune whose throbbing rockabilly beat doesn’t conceal the dark, bluesy feel in the lyrics of this resonant torch song for good times and good people lost along the way.

As if to expunge those deep thoughts, Lenz and company charged through “Burnin’ Rubber,” an older tune where those Elvis-like yelps, whoops and hiccups earn Lenz a spot among rockabilly’s front rank. And best of all, she seems to revel in the sheer campiness of it all–she knows it’s a little over-the-top, but that is it’s charm, after all.

Later on, the ballad “I Was Thinkin’ About You (And I Forgot About Me) demonstrated that lyrical depth again that makes Lenz so fascinating. And once again, the group quickly shifted gears and rocked through “Hip Shakin’ Mama,” sung by Espinosa. “Devil on My Shoulder,” with its chorus of “just can’t get enough” was more wild rockin’ with second thoughts just below the surface. And encore of “Cry Wolf,” from the new CD, was a terrific vehicle for Lenz to unleash some of her rawest and most gripping vocal work, even as it raced to its pell mell conclusion amid joyous yelps and swoops.

Fourteen or fifteen songs–many of them two or three minutes, as befits rockabilly–seemed to fly by, and the only negative about Lenz’ show was its brevity. The lady can sing and writes smart songs, and her current band is a killer. Someday soon, hopefully, east coast fans will realize that.

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