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Highway to Hell 

Here comes Cleveland's most raucous rockabilly troupe.

The Lords of the Highway invite you to throw your - empty beer cans at them. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The Lords of the Highway invite you to throw your empty beer cans at them.
Dennis A. Bell drives people to drink. Perhaps only mother-in-laws, taxmen, and the Tribe's bullpen inspire more boozing in Cleveland than the founder of the roof-raising Lords of the Highway.

"When we play, we always have a very high ratio of beer and liquor being bought," the singer-guitarist chuckles. "Every once in a while, instead of venues, we'll play some of these smaller corner bars. Usually we get a pretty good crowd, and people do a lot of drinking. Hopefully, it's in a good way."

We weren't aware that there was a bad way, but we'll take Bell's word for it. As he knocks back a Pabst, he seems like the kind of guy who knows his way around a 12-pack. And so do his bandmates, 20-year-old drummer Peter Yorko and sparkplug bassist Sugar. Together, they're drinking beers in the basement of Sugar's Old Brooklyn home, where the band practices beneath Gwar and Reverend Horton Heat posters and white Christmas lights.

Seeing the Lords in such a relaxed setting takes a little getting used to. Onstage, it's common to see Sugar lie down flat on her back, still gripping her stand-up bass, which is bigger than she is. Bell climbs atop Sugar's fat four-string and plays from it, while Yorko occasionally makes out with his drum kit. The band sneers and leers at the crowd, and with Sugar donning fishnets, a red derby hat, and a little black dress, the crowd normally leers right back.

"When the bass goes down on her, we get a lot of hands on mouths from the ladies. Did you see that?" gasps Bell, dressed in a Carhartt jacket and a black T-shirt from Nemeth's Lounge in Painesville. "They'll cover up their children's eyes."

"Really?" Sugar responds, her voice tinged with incredulity. A financial analyst by day, she's remarkably demure offstage. "The music just lends itself to that. Doing the moves isn't intimidating, though it is scary, like, Am I going to fall down? Am I going to be able to do this and keep playing? The music is just so all out, get crazy."

With Dennis, Yorko, and Sugar all taking turns at the mic, the Lords manage to bring a bit more breadth to the traditional reverb-saturated rockabilly aesthetic. On the band's new LP, Degreaser, they sing about shitty cars, shittier lovers, and the joys of playing Whack-a-Mole at the county fair. Their tunes yearn for the open road and an open bar. Most of the songs are set to a swift beat aimed at getting folks off their bar stools and onto the dance floor to sweat out some Budweiser. They're bookended by instrumentals slicker than the sidewalks this time of year. At one point, the Lords even render the Misfits' punk chestnut "Die Die My Darling" as something you could square-dance to.

But more important to this bunch, Degreaser revels in the kind of old-school hellraising that was once as much a rockabilly trademark as greasy hair and bloated livers.

"Back in the day, the rockabilly guys were the punk rockers of their time; they were definitely not concerned about conforming to the mom-and-pop idea of music," Bell says. "These guys were trying to be as loud and crazy as they could be back then. You had Jerry Lee Lewis setting his damn piano on fire. I think some of that gets lost on some of these rockabilly bands nowadays."

Bell seems to enjoy being something of an instigator -- especially live. At a recent gig at the Grog Shop, he goaded the crowd to start hurling their empties at the band until it looked like a cloudburst of Pabst cans had showered the place.

"I dared them to throw them at Pete," Bell recalls. "The girl who was selling merchandise got her tooth knocked out -- by an empty one. Sometimes things just kind of escalate."

"It was a 20-minute battle, with people hiding behind us onstage," Yorko adds with a grin, nonplussed at being made the target of drunken revelers. "If you go to shows for some types of music, everyone is just afraid to do anything, because of what everyone else will think. Here, everyone just gets wasted. It's liberating."

Especially for Bell, who broke into the local music scene as a roadie for the Cowslingers. Having started the group in 1992, he's the sole original member in a lineup that finally seems to have solidified with the Lords' fifth full-length and the addition of Yorko. The band's national profile is beginning to rise as well, thanks to annual appearances at the Heavy Rebel Weekender in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a gig at New York rock dive du jour CBGB's, and a stint at Bike Week in Daytona last year.

"In the last year and a half, we're getting to the point where we can go to a town, and there will at least be people who have heard of us and are willing to come out," Bell says.

Still, this isn't a group that's looking to quit their day jobs anytime soon. Much like the drinking that fuels a lot of their tunes, being in a band is a pastime that they happen to be exceptionally good at.

"We don't want to be too serious with ourselves," Bell says. "I don't think any of us really suffer for our art."

That is, aside from the hangovers.

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