What’s a good way to make a cynical music geek a true believer? Show them a reunion or two of some obscure bands in their collection that they swore would never take the stage again. Take the musical rebirth of the Del-Lords, who play the Winchester on Tuesday. After more than two decades, a grand resumption that was crowdsourced by the fans — or at least one super-fan in particular.
As guitarist Eric Ambel tells it during a recent phone conversation, a Spanish promoter named Pepe who was a huge fan of the roots-rock pioneers had been dangling an offer for a Del-Lords reunion tour of Spain for years. Each time Ambel would travel to Spain for shows, whether via his gig as Steve Earle sideman or with the Yayhoos (his sorta-supergroup featuring former Georgia Satellites frontman Dan Baird), Pepe would tell him, “This is good, but it’s not the Del-Lords.”
The promoter didn’t stop there, however. As Del-Lords mainman Scott Kempner related in a blog post on the band’s official website, Pepe had done quite a bit of legwork beyond talking to both sides. Hearing that there were at least prospects for a possible duo tour of Spain featuring Kempner and Ambel, the fan offered to up the ante and help them find a drummer if regular ‘Lords skinsman Frank Funaro was somehow unavailable due to his commitments with Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, aiming to help possibly turn those gigs into Del-Lords shows. The idea was attractive enough that Ambel and Kempner decided to make a few phone calls. When they did, they found that both Funaro and original bassist Manny Caiti (who would later bow out after the Spain gigs due to commitments with his regular day job) were game. The gigs were on.
But the band members had been talking and decided that if they were going to go this far, they might as well throw new music into the equation as well. “We didn’t want to go over there like grave robbers and just play the old stuff, so we started working on some new songs,” Ambel says. “That’s how the record sort of began. There was an EP that we sold only on our website and at gigs called Under Construction. It was rough mixes of work-in-progress stuff and all of those songs [eventually] ended up on [the] Elvis Club [album].”
In his blog post, Kempner called Elvis Club (which borrows its title from the pseudonym that the band used to play a few shows under-the-radar prior to the Spain trip) one that addresses “unfinished business” for the group, who found themselves on the wrong side of the tracks in the ‘80s when it came to fitting in and eventually called it quits. “When we were making records in the ‘80s, we were a band out of time,” he wrote. “If for no other reason (and there were other reasons) than, in an age of synth bands and New Wave leftovers, we were a guitar band — with the ‘80s being particularly unkind to guitars. All those crappy reverbs and sh-t were seemingly designed to make your guitar sound exactly like you would never want it to.”
Ambel had also been keen as a developing producer in those years to get a crack at producing a Del-Lords album. With Elvis Club, he would finally get his wish more than two decades later. “Our other records, there was a lot of layers in between us and the final thing, with the record company, managers [and] different producers,” he says. “Some were easier than others, but there just seemed like a layers. On this thing, it seemed to be the most simple, unencumbered process that we’d ever done. You know, we’re doing it at my studio, and I always wanted to see us make a more live-ish, simpler [and] more direct record. I waited long enough and got to do it.”
The material on Elvis Club crackles with an energy that matches the spirit and strength of the band’s ‘80s output, while still feeling like an album that the band would make today. For starters, it certainly has a relaxed feeling in spots; “Chicks, Man” and “When The Drugs Kick In” are proof that the Del-Lords didn’t take things too seriously.
As was the case with the original albums, Kempner would pen the bulk of the material, including the Elvis Club songs that feature Ambel on the lead vocals. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t collaborative elements to the songwriting; Ambel shares that in some cases, he would tell him a story and Kempner would write a song from the source material.) Despite being a prolific songwriter, the veteran guitarist has no problems with the dynamic. “He writes for the band, and usually back in the day, he wrote a lot of songs and we would listen to them to see who got excited about what,” Ambel says. “As far as this record goes, since I was functioning as the producer, I heard a whole bunch of songs and then we picked the ones that we thought would be good for the record.”
In recent years, Clevelanders might have been aware of Ambel the producer more than most, seeing as he’s spent time producing music by the Cowslingers and Jack Fords. (For the past decade, he’s also endorsed the Maple Heights-based Dr. Z Amplification as his personal choice for making his guitars sound good and loud.) These gigs have given him a chance to spend time here, and he counts the Beachland Ballroom, Brothers Lounge and the Happy Dog as favorite haunts when he’s in the area.
Ambel is also a fan of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “and the way that they treat bands.” In particular, he remembers one visit where he was drawn in by junior high drawings by Jimi Hendrix which depicted Civil War battles (“Amazing stuff”). “You know, it’s funny, when you mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it really seems like there’s two entities,” he says. “There’s the voting process and who gets in — that whole thing, which seems very political. And then there’s the museum itself.
“When I was on the road with Steve, we did have a lot of time to go to museums, when we were on tour in Europe and all over the place. Going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it wasn’t my first time, but after being to a bunch of museums, it was just really interesting to be in a museum where people are really smiling. There’s an enjoyment that comes from the stuff that they curate there and it’s some really unique stuff. I think it’s really a feel good place.”
Ambel says that these Del-Lords shows too have been fun so far, with the band hitting “stuff from the old records” in the setlist in addition to playing quite a few tracks from the new album. It’s a nostalgia trip that he’s happy that he was able to take, because it’s given many people who never got the chance to see the band live — both fans and even a good number of Ambel’s friends — a second shot at the prize. It’s also been a successful reunion for the band and a large part of that has to do with the fact that they’ve stayed focused on the important parts of being back together. Hint: it’s not about selling a million records.
“You know, the fun [for us] is not as much about the result as it is about playing the game. It’s not about the end score; it’s about being able to play. So that’s more of our goal. We’re having fun and we’ve got the record out. We also went back and found all of these demos and outtakes from our ‘80s days and we have this two CD set called Right For Jerry Vol. 1 & 2. Those are only available on our website or at gigs. That was kind of fun and it’s nice for us to have a little more stuff out there.”