As Robbie Fulks notes in his hilarious ditty "Roots Rock Weirdoes," there are definitely those who take rockabilly—and its attendant lifestyle—way too seriously. These are purists who care more about Eddie Cochran acetates than how many songs fit on an iPod, and consider my forthcoming pornographic period musical, Grease Monkeys (about a gang of horny teenage hot-rod fanatics), nothing short of sacrilege.
Seattle trio the Black Crabs, mercifully, do not fall into this camp. Hell, they aren't even comfortable being called rockabilly. The centerpiece of their tight-and-twangy sound is the upright bass of Kirsten Ballweg, yet their bag of tricks runs deeper than the Sun Records catalog. "If we were just a rockabilly revival band we'd get bored, so we are genre benders, mixing in the many influences that make us want to play," says singer/guitarist Jonathan "Johnny 7" Stuart. "[Drummer] Tom [Forster] will bring in old country tunes that he plays on the piano, Kirsten digs up obscure songs from the '50s and '60s, and I try to write songs that reflect my sense of humor."
That last element permeates their new CD, Blast Off!—which the Crabs are holding a CD release party for at the Tractor on Saturday, November 5. The original "Pickup Line," which finds Johnny trying to drunkenly rope a lass using the dregs of his whiskey-soaked wit, is sung with a mix of bravado and self-effacement that recalls Rhett Miller of Old 97's, while "Stink Bomb" finds the narrator exacting revenge on a mean-spirited storekeeper via adolescent methods. Several covers featured on this 14-song set are also light-hearted, particularly the Everly Brothers' gem "Poor Jenny," about a teenage date gone terribly wrong.
Stuart admits that high spirits are an essential component of the Black Crabs dynamic. "[KEXP's Shake the Shack host] Leon Berman called me up and said, 'Johnny 7, I just listened to your new CD, and have determined that you are one twisted individual,'" he admits. "I consider that high praise.
"But I do feel you need to strike a balance between sobriety and humor," he continues. Hence the inclusion of "Shelton Express," a reminiscence about Stuart and his brother watching railroad trains as kids. And musically, the trio aren't fooling around—Johnny and Kirsten have a knack for playful vocal harmonies (she sings the low parts, he goes high), while Stuart proclaims Forster "the best rockabilly roots drummer around these parts... partially because he is more interested in music than worrying about some uptight 'authenticity.'"
Not that anyone but a crackpot could question the Black Crabs' credentials. In addition to having honed their individual chops in Northwest outfits like the Donettes, the Crabs first came together as a pick-up backing ensemble for the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. "What a thrill to be onstage with a legend!" gushes Stuart. "She is a true testament to the power of great songs, big wigs, and backstage Chablis." You read that right, boys: Not bourbon, not Budweiser, but Chablis. Get the point? Strict adherence to authenticity is for asses... all the better for the Black Crabs to sink their pincers into.