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Garage Sailing 

The Greenhornes are at the center of garage rock's surging popularity.

The Greenhornes learned the ropes from their bluesy forebears.
  • The Greenhornes learned the ropes from their bluesy forebears.

A recent article in Entertainment Weekly asked, "Will garage rock be music's next big thing?" It went on to give a history of the genre, citing the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" and ? & the Mysterians' "96 Tears" in the process. The article also mentioned the reissue of the expanded Nuggets collection of great "garage singles" of the late '60s and how Sopranos star and Springsteen sidekick Steven Van Zandt is promoting a series of concerts called "Underground Garage" at a club in New York City. Finally, it surmised that garage rock can be to today's manufactured pop music what punk was to the manufactured pop of the '70s.

Of course, punk was never really "the next big thing," at least not here in the States, where the Eagles' Hotel California outsold anything by the MC5 or the Ramones. But that doesn't mean the music wasn't powerful or influential. And the same could be said for the current crop of garage rockers.

They include the Greenhornes, the Cincinnati outfit whose new self-titled disc was put out by Telstar. Label owner Todd Abramson, though a fan of garage rock, says he was attracted to the group for its ability to do more than play loud and fast. "A lot of bands in that genre are very afraid to tackle slow songs or even midtempo songs, for that matter," he says. "The Greenhornes really run the gamut."

The band's antecedents are early Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, the Box Tops, and any number of '60s groups mesmerized by early American blues. What's surprising is how vital that sound still is. Maybe that's because the Greenhornes play not as a nostalgia act, but as a band that expresses love, anger, fun, and sexiness with an urgent bite. When they sing about the woman who did them wrong or the fun they need to have, you believe them. It's rockin' and soulful: simple, sweet, and raw.

The band came to its style by listening to old blues records, just as its '60s counterparts did. Drummer Patrick Keeler says it was a shared love of blues-based rock, plus a little boredom, that brought the group together four years ago. "We were all friends hanging out at the same place; [we] didn't have anything going on, so we formed a band."

Their first album, 1999's Gun for You, is a mix of hard rock and soulful blues that achieves a fine balance between raw emotion and tight playing. The group's five members crank out a big, wide sound that, while noisy, never overpowers their ability to pull off a catchy tune. Key to the disc's sound is organist Jared McKinney; he plays the Hammond B3 with reserve, enough to back up and fill out the recordings, but not so forceful as to make listeners feel like they're in church. He even produces a great understated solo in "Hold Me," a song guaranteed to seduce anyone into the most intimate of slow dances. Another factor in the group's appeal is singer Craig Fox, who comes off as alternately rough and sweet. One minute, he's an angry kid "lookin' for some good times," and the next, he's an old soul who's had enough. On songs like "So Cold," he captures Mick Jagger's combination of sincerity and irony; on The Greenhornes, he sounds more like Jim Morrison.

Onstage, Fox often exudes an air of indifference. At a recent show at the Beachland, he never quite stood center stage, and his singing was raw and forceful, with just the right amount of menace. Guitarist Brian Olive, who shares lead vocals on many tracks, was flamboyant, playing up his movie-star good looks. Live, group members manage to strike a balance between going balls-out and playing tight sets, which makes the term "garage band" seem a little too limiting for them.

Still, it doesn't bother the Greenhornes that they're stuck with the garage label -- though drummer Keeler is quick to point out, "I've never practiced in a garage."

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