Room at the Top

The Vacancies might be Cleveland's best punk band. Maybe that's why they're always smiling.

The Vacancies trump most of their Cleveland-punk counterparts in both age and ability. - WALTER  NOVAK
The Vacancies trump most of their Cleveland-punk counterparts in both age and ability.
The mohawks are expected, the smiles aren't. It's a Thursday night at Peabody's, and the Vacancies have been tapped to warm up the crowd for the show's headliners, British punk vets the Vibrators. The 100 or so in attendance might be there for sneering English punk, but for now they're getting surly rock and roll, served with a shit-eatin' smile from Vacancies frontman Billy Crooked, who's leading the band in a typical set that's loaded more with grins than grimaces.

"We're having a good time," a bare-chested Crooked announces midway through the band's performance, as the tentative crowd edges closer to the stage. "But then, I say that at every show."

And he does. But Crooked's words don't ring hollow. The Vacancies' raw, three-chord punk is as seedy as the upper reaches of St. Clair, which makes for an odd match with the band's good-humored stage presence. When a heckler calls them a bunch of "fuckin' faggots," Crooked only chuckles. Then he belts out the next song, and guitarist Michael James goes back to running in circles onstage, just as the Vacancies have done around their Cleveland competition of late.

And the enthusiasm is no act. It's as clear as the beer that three of the group's members are drinking a few days later at the Five O' Clock Lounge, the Lakewood club where Crooked DJs on Saturday nights.

"I think, besides Michael's marriage, this is the most fun any of us have [had] in our lives," says bassist Kari Krash, breaching punk etiquette with his sentimental reminiscence. "It's what we live for."

"We got done with practice last week, and we were like 'This is the best band I've ever been in. I love you guys,' James recalls with a laugh. "We're so gay like that."

"We are," adds Krash, who has known James since their school days together. "We're a gay, sensitive band."

Well, not really. Evidence to the contrary is supplied by the number of ladies who regularly show up at the Vacancies' shows -- mostly for a look at Crooked, with his boyish good looks and tattoos galore. But after years of toiling in the Cleveland rock underground, these dudes (all in their late 20s, with the exception of drummer Watti Cameron, who's 38) are visibly happy to be in a band where ability trumps attitude.

"A girl in Pittsburgh was like 'Wow, boys touching boys,'" Crooked recalls of an after-show fan encounter. "Jeff kissed me on my cheek and Michael, like, licked me on my shoulder or something during the set, and she was so excited we were so affectionate."

But the affection ends where the music begins: There are no hugs or kisses on the Vacancies' hard-assed debut, Gutcheck, an album of clenched-fist rockers with titles like "Burn," "Hellbelow," and "Head-Case." The Vacancies leaven the vitriol with rich, three-part harmonies, like drops of honey in their High Life, and with their light-hearted self-deprecation.

"None of us are all that talented," says James, the band's most animated member. "It's the whole idea of you see a punk band and you go, 'I could do that.' We're just smiling because we're laughing at each other the whole time."

As a result, a sense of ease hangs about the Vacancies; they've come to terms with the hand-to-mouth existence of punk rockers.

"When we were 17, we had high expectations: 'We're gonna be rock stars,'" James jokes. "Now we're almost 30, and it's kind of like 'Let's just have fun with it and roll with the punches.'"

"I think that's helped us, because a lot of that other shit gets in the way," explains Krash, a classically trained pianist who's the band's most musically accomplished member. "'We have to be like this, we can't be like that' -- you think too hard."

The Vacancies have been together only a couple of years, but the players have rubbed elbows in other bands. They're young enough to get onstage, but old enough to know that punk is a young man's sport. After all, who ponies up dough to see some wheezing old punker whose paunch is more pronounced than his politics? The Vacancies aren't ones to worry about such issues.

"Fuck yeah I do," Krash quickly responds.

"I don't," James counters, busting Krash's chops with a prizefighter's jab. "What in the hell are you worried about it for?"

"The peaks and valleys," Krash explains. "I think we'd all be lying if we said we didn't care about it a little bit, because we all work full-time jobs, we all practice during the week, we all get in the van and drive out of state."

"But I don't care about it, dude," James contends, working himself into a lather. "I'm not in it to make it. It'd be nice if stuff happens, but you know, five years from now, if we're still where we're at, we're still going to be playing shows, because it's fun."

Most of the time, anyway.

"Sometimes I think maybe we're getting too old for this shit," Crooked sighs before gathering his thoughts. "But I just couldn't imagine doing anything else."