Let's consider the phenomenon of rock and roll for a moment. The movement started with a small group of white Southern weirdoes playing "black" music in the mid-'50s, or in the case of Bill Haley, a revamped country crooner playing charged-up Chicago blues. It shocked, it frightened, it entertained.
So now, some forty-odd years later, the beat Baptist zealots condemned has crossed the ocean, gotten stoned, been through love, loss, and even death, invented MTV and killed the radio star, and finally come full circle in the humble village of ... Chagrin Falls, Ohio?
At least that's the claim of local artists Ace and the Ragers--"the genesis of real rock and roll," to quote their bio. Obviously, the tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but together vocalist and lead songwriter Ace Borkowski, bassist Bryan McCleery, drummer Craig Ramsey, guitarist Junior Molnar, and tenor and alto saxists Flanigan Nelson and Joe "the Butcher" Ryan have done their homework when it comes to organic roots rock. And despite the first impression that they're bop/swing/rockabilly bandwagon jumpers, Ace and the Ragers eventually come off as a band hugely influenced by early rock and roll, but not chained to the gimmick.
"Everybody in the band is totally influenced by something else," explains Ace. "The sax guys are into rhythm-and-blues and jump blues stuff, and Junior's into rockabilly/Western swing, and I guess we all kind of just come together and create the original concept of a rock and roll band."
The most retro of roots rock bands will always have the problem of rising above the stereotypes. With supercharged songs titled "Girl Crazy," "Scantily Clad," "Slumber Party," and "Beer" from their debut Pin-Up Records release, . .. Light This Sucker Up!, Ace and the Ragers don't seem too concerned about raising rock's intelligence quotient. But remember, being fresh and clever in an established genre is often more difficult than beating folks over the head with your cerebral cortex.
"The way we look at it," says McCleery, "is basically, rock and roll has been around for pushing fifty years now, and it's never gone away and it never will. And I can't see that all of a sudden going away. Rockabilly and swing have had their trends that have come and gone away, and we're just playing that original [kind of] rock and roll."
Or as Ace more succinctly puts it: "Good music never goes out of style, and no matter what context you play it in, if it's good music, it's good music."
The group has been spreading its roots gospel throughout the Midwest, but plans on hitting the road more seriously in the near future. Its reputation for bloodthirsty rock and roll shows has apparently preceded them.
"We've been to shows before, and people we've never seen in our lives are screaming out requests for our songs," says McCleery. "They've just heard from demos that we've had out, and now the CD's out for two weeks, and we played a show in Pennsylvania, and somebody's screaming out a request for one of the songs."
Ace adds: "The Internet is a wonderful thing."
"We've had the opportunity [through the Internet] to book shows overseas," continues McCleery, "and people from Denver and Seattle call us a lot. San Diego and Los Angeles, too. I get e-mails a lot: 'When are you comin' out?' 'Here's a name and a number.' I've just been collecting them over the years, and in '99 we're planning on hitting the road, see what we can mix up."
But for the time being, Ace and the Ragers' next hometown gig will be the night before Thanksgiving at the Grog Shop--"the biggest party of the year" in McCleery's opinion.
Although the cross section of fans at an Ace and the Ragers show is as wide as any band's, these guys feel their material is geared toward a younger audience. Nostalgia's one thing, but to kids with car keys and their first valid ID, a rock and roll show becomes a rite of passage--and in some cases, pure survival. "Younger audiences are way more picky and way more critical and way more willing to just slam you if you don't conform to a certain image or sound," says Molnar. Ace and the Ragers don't seem too intimidated by the challenge. "What's cool about bands that are fun is that they'll never have a problem getting booked, and people like to smile and, uh, drink," Ace says.
"And our shows are crazy. The CD's very good, but it doesn't say anything about our live show. They're just like a total party."
"Bloodthirsty rock and roll," adds McCleery.
"Sweat!" shouts Molnar.
Ace and the Ragers CD release party. Wednesday, November 25, Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Rd., 216-321-5588.