"So, do you like the upright piano on the porch?"
This greeting, from Lords of the Highway singer-guitarist Dennis Bell, isn't the first clue to the band's idiosyncratic nature. Featuring an upright bass, contagious energy, and a clever mix of rockabilly, garage, and surf-punk, the band's live show is among the most distinctive in town. (The Lords' down-home punkabilly antics are captured on a forthcoming self-titled DVD, expected in the next month or two.)
In the basement/rehearsal space of Chez Sugar, home to said piano and the bands' bassist, the feeling is definitely late-'80s. Years of malt beverage and Lords memorabilia grace the space, like a Beachland West.
Though the group's image owes much to truckstops, mudflaps, and B-movies, the music appeals to more than leather-jacketed greasers and fans of Betty Boop. The trio -- rounded out by drummer Joey Hissem -- has a rock-and-roll soul, and Bell calls Cleveland the "spiritual center for high-octane beer-drinkin' music" like his own.
Sugar's sexy handling of the upright is often cause for comment when they play; watching the shorter gal's prowess seems to inspire others.
"The feedback is always positive, especially from girls at shows," adds Sugar. "That resonates. It's good to know positive influence and empowerment come from seeing a powerful alpha chick on upright bass as a role model."
The aptly named Lords of the Highway are touring fiends.
"We've been all along the highway," says Bell. He mentions an annual stint at the North Carolina Heavy Rebel Weekender and an itinerary longer than Cash's "I've Been Everywhere." They've pared down some, but slowing down is not in the cards.
That relentless road approach explains a Spinal Tap-like survival rate for a succession of drummers. Yet Bell and Sugar indicate that no departure has been related to bizarre gardening accidents or spontaneous combustion.
"It's had more to do with hectic scheduling than anything," says Bell. "Now, enter the New Guy."
Hissem's the New Guy, also of Slack-Jawed Yokels. The self-proclaimed fan of "old country, late-'90s rap and bluegrass" is a quiet guy in a Hank III tour shirt. For now, he lets his mates have their fun.
"Don't let him fool you," Sugar says. "He can bust a move, so I've heard."