- Walter Novak
- The Lord's players: Ant and Ed, the relative brains behind Uncle Scratch.
It's a bit past nine on a frosty Wednesday night, and it's time for a miracle. Jesus turned the water into wine, but Uncle Scratch's Gospel Revival can do Him one better.
"Brother Ant's gonna turn Mudslides into urine," Uncle Scratch drummer Brother Ed proclaims, as his partner staggers toward the john of the Capsule bar in Lakewood. Even when they're shitfaced, the Good Lord crowds their thoughts.
"People ask us why we drink," Ed says reflectively. "We tell them, 'God made barley.'"
God also made shtick, and Uncle Scratch's Gospel Revival happily indulges to the brink of vice: Ant and Ed are a pair of Bible-thumping zealots, intent on saving the sinners that make up their audience with a one-two punch of rockabilly and religion. The duo's concerts are a white-trash whirlwind, a lowbrow novelty that's surprisingly novel too, full of stupidly catchy ditties with hooks and hellfire to spare.
Not that much of anyone has really noticed. So far, the duo's performance credits include the sidewalks of Lakewood, the halls outside the Peabody's restroom, and the lobby of the Agora. They're fixing to buy a truck with a generator, the better to host mobile shows. But there have been few actual stages to this point.
"Stages are for pussy bands," snorts Ed, clad in his signature getup of eye-watering lime green shirt, green blazer, purple tie, and garish gold-rim sunglasses.
Granted, Brothers Ant and Ed arrive at their sound without the benefit of instrumental proficiency -- a potential turnoff to uninitiated concert promoters. Hell, they don't really even have instruments. Ant proselytizes through a bullhorn while clawing at a dented Stratocaster. Ed bangs away on a drum kit half-fashioned from a cardboard barrel, with a steel milk crate for a cymbal. His drumsticks have been broken and taped back together so many times, they bend like wet noodles when put to use.
The miracle in all this may be that converts to Uncle Scratch are growing in number: The band now packs the house at Touch Supper Club's Rock Night, and it won over rock crowds opening for the likes of Disengage and Keelhaul, as well as the throng at last year's Hessfest.
They've also registered a score with their new debut, an infectious, 25-minute hootenanny called Kickin' the Devil in the Balls. It's a refreshing chug from the communion chalice, driven by revved-up guitar and a thunderous beat. Think of the Reverend Horton Heat on ephedrine, the Stray Cats with mange.
Kickin' the Devil's themes stick mostly to Lucifer and ladies. Ant bellows like an auctioneer, his megaphone emphasizing every syllable on cuts like "I Banged a Sinner" and "Sword of the Lord." The album's highlight is the live favorite "Gimmie Back My Bible," a loud, screeching thumper that's followed by a hilarious take on Prince's "Purple Rain."
It's pretty good stuff for a debut album, recorded in one afternoon on a budget of 55 bucks.
"We actually recorded it in six hours," says Ant, an excitable sparkplug who sports a giant trucker's cap that dwarfs his head. "And on the seventh hour . . ."
". . . we drank beer," finishes Ed, perfectly on cue.
It's all part of the Uncle Scratch theory of record-making.
"We have a rule of thumb," says Ed. "It shouldn't take you over 15 minutes to write a song. Advice for every band in Cleveland -- are you listening?" he says, picking up the tape recorder and speaking directly into it for added emphasis. "Fifteen minutes -- if the song is not done and completed lyrically, then you just scratch it. The Devil is complicated. Uncle Scratch is simple."
Ant and Ed, you may have noticed, carry themselves like a rockabilly Beavis and Butt-head; they remove their tongues from their cheeks only long enough for another swig of beer.
The real story, as close as we're going to get, is this: French cinema brought Ant and Ed together. The pair met two years ago at B-Ware Video, Lakewood's B-movie mecca, which Ed also happens to own. Ant came in seeking the French serial-killer satire Man Bites Dog, Ed had it, and a friendship was born.
Both players have kicked around the Cleveland music scene for years, in bands like Psychobilly Cadillac and Knifedance, and were met with varying degrees of regional success. They decided a more spontaneous, off-the-cuff approach was in order this go-round, seeing as how being studious musicians had never really paid off in the past.
"I have been in bands where we practiced and practiced and practiced, you'd get bummed out after a show if you screwed up, and it never panned out to nothing," Ed says of his years in the Cleveland underground.
So out of this malaise, Uncle Scratch was formed. Both drummers by trade, Ant and Ed soon realized one of them would have to strap on a guitar, if not actually learn how to play it. How they ended up spewing punk-rock Pentecostals is anybody's guess, as is the meaning of their peculiar handle.
"Our first show, first song, Brother Ant was getting shocked," recalls Ed, veering close to actual explanation.
"Blue lightning shot from my lips to that microphone," Ant takes over, shuddering at the memory, as if a February wind has just blown through the bar.
"We knew right then, it was on," Ed offers matter-of-factly.
"It was us against the Devil," Ant adds. "The score was Devil 1, Uncle Scratch 0."
That score could change as Uncle Scratch's following continues to grow -- which is seemingly a given, considering the band's oddly addictive live show, with its megaphone barking, instrument destruction, and shout-outs of "Satan is a pussy-ass bitch!" It's an act honed by a rigorous practice regimen: one session, lasting 45 minutes, every two weeks. Rain or shine.
"This is the American dream, because we're putting in minimal effort and getting maximum payback," says Ed. "We're doing nothing, and we're reaping the benefits. Let's put it in simple terms: WE ROCK. Can you put that in all caps?"
Oh God yes. Yes we can.