The Wild Kind

A record company makes music for people who like it rowdy.

Pat James of the Tomahawks wants to play you a song, daddy-o!
Pat James of the Tomahawks wants to play you a song, daddy-o!

Like a 1950s pulp novel brought to life, Purcell's Lounge surges with rock and roll abandon. Bottles and glasses of all sizes litter every available surface of this Green Bay, Wisconsin bar, while a thick haze of smoke hovers near the ceiling, and the dance floor becomes a spectacle of testifying frenzy. Onstage, Lil Gizzelle holds the buzzing crowd spellbound.

Nineteen years old, the entrancing Latina belts out her begging, bluesy showstopper, "Baby Please Don't Go," with the kind of natural R&B charisma that might tempt Amy Winehouse to call it a day.

Locking in behind her, Lil' Luis Y Los Wild Teens match every yelp and howl. Drummer Angel Hernandez (resplendent in a midnight-blue zoot suit and Charlie Chan mustache) drives the primitive beat like a man possessed, while guitarist Luis Arriaga attacks his Fender Strat with the fiery pandemonium of a young Ike Turner. Blurring the lines between rockabilly, garage, and R&B, they're the aural equivalent of switchblades, stiletto heels, and a pack of unfiltered smokes — the band Orson Welles might have cast in Touch of Evil, had they been born seven decades earlier.

Welcome to the world of Wild Records, a Los Angeles-based label whose sole purpose is to conjure rock and roll's original spirit with each and every rough edge exposed. Judging by the crowd at Purcell's — and similarly lethal sets by labelmates Dusty Chance & the Allnighters, the Hi-Strung Ramblers, Chuy & the Bobcats, Santos, and Omar Romero — they're doing a damn good job of it.

Until today, this tiny bar buried in the bowels of the Native American-owned Oneida Casino hasn't seen much action this week. But that's understandable. For six days straight, the casino's twin ballrooms have hosted the largest nonstop schedule of rock and roll pioneers ever assembled under one roof.

Yet it's somehow fitting that the week's most riotous show is taking place far enough away from the rest of the action to feel more like a part of the adjoining hotel than the slots-stuffed casino. Months later, Little Richard's opening-night set will be a fading memory; Motörhead frontman Lemmy's rockabilly outfit will barely be remembered. But the Wild Records showcase? People who weren't even there remember it. Perhaps it's because the label's impressive catalog of albums captures the live sizzle of the bands so perfectly.

The records are packaged in beautiful hand-screened gatefold sleeves. The music inside is filled with pounding pianos, trance-inducing maracas, and screeching guitars that simultaneously recall the rockabilly ravings of Johnny Carroll, the low-down boogie of John Lee Hooker, and the over-the-top desperation of a thousand garage bands from the '60s.

Striking a fractured balance between pure musicality and sheer madness, crusaders like Luis & the Wildfires and Omar Romero always seem to appear out of nowhere at the precise moment when they are most needed. A visit to the label's website reveals a growing roster of gifted transcendentalists — most of whom appear on the terrific compilation Wild Presents: The Young Breed — churning out some of the most inspired rock and roll of the 21st century.

The visionary behind it all is Reb Kennedy, an Irishman who witnessed the British punk explosion firsthand. "I think we're capturing some of that energy that existed in late '76 and early '77," he says. Or late '56 and early '57, for that matter.

To Kennedy, unbridled rock and roll is timeless: "It frustrates me that people think of what we do as some sort of nostalgia '50s bullshit. There's nothing more independent than what we do. We record our records in our own studio, we mix and master our records, we hand-make our sleeves. We are the true independent; we are the breath of fresh air. We are the underground cult."

While revisionist history has rarely diluted a music era as much as it has rock and roll's first Big Bang, the success of Wild's first release six years ago established a growing hunger for the real thing. Lil' Luis Y Los Wild Teens' "La Rebeldona" became an underground club hit and effectively kick-started the label.

These days, recording sessions are typically held in the garage behind Kennedy's house. Most of the time, the entire Wild Records family attends. "There are 12 bands on the label, and all of them work together, interact together, drink together," says Kennedy. "They trust each other, and they support each other."

Kennedy credits that unity with Wild's survival. Well, that and a whole lot of booze. "I think having a few drinks, or a lot of drinks, captures the same intensity that you capture live," he says. "It gives the musicians that energy, that looseness. So our sessions start out with about four or five cases of beer, some Captain Morgan's and vodka, some tequila, and some whiskey. We record rock and roll music, so we want the fire. We want the devil there.

"In a lot of ways, the energy that's created by my guys will frighten some people," he concludes. "But if you want to listen to bland '50s rock and roll, there's a lot of bands out there doing that. We're talking about young guys — the average age is under 25. These are young guys who want to chase women and get drunk out of their minds. That's what their music should sound like."