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In promotional materials intended to hype its latest album, Mustang Lightning is called "unmistakably the most energetic and hard-driving band to emerge from the Denver music scene." And guitarist/vocalist/phrasemaker Phil DeVille doesn't back down from this claim.
"The music that we play is the kind I like," DeVille says from his current home, New Orleans. "So for my taste, yeah, we are the hardest-driving band to come out of Denver. And we're definitely one of the hardest working. Even when we didn't have a record deal, we were out touring the Midwest and building up our fan base. I didn't see a lot of other bands in Denver doing that."
DeVille (real name: Phil Tague) has never been shy about touting Mustang Lightning, and with its latest album, a self-titled affair released by New Orleans's own Monkey Hill Records, he has something to back up his boasts. The recording is a wild affair that builds on the rockabilly style the group concentrated on while in Denver. Fuzz-toned originals such as "Helpless," "La Bruja" and "Krazy Kat" and cover versions of tunes originally cut by nut-rock pioneer Hasil Adkins, Alien Sex Fiend and Tommy Jet, an obscure Texas acid-punk band from the Sixties, leave the disc sounding like a collection of outtakes by the Cramps in their prime.
The punky musical touches on Mustang Lightning have their roots in DeVille's Denver past. In the early Eighties, when he was seventeen, he was a member of Zebra 123, a band led by Kirby McMillan, who subsequently transformed himself into musical satirist Mojo Nixon. Following the end of that group, DeVille kicked around the local scene for several years before meeting drummer Mike Voelker in 1988 at the Longhorn Saloon, a now-demolished LoDo landmark. "It was a great place," DeVille says. "Neal Cassady used to live upstairs at the Longhorn during the Fifties, and Bat Masterson supposedly ran whores out of there."
With Voelker dubbed Lightning Boy and bass-recruit Lance Bakemeyer renamed Johnny Stang, Mustang Lightning was born. The group soon graduated from a regular Wednesday gig at the Longhorn to other clubs in the city, which was then swamped with rockabilly-influenced acts. DeVille and company dressed the part, donning leather jackets and shades and slicking back their hair. But as time marched on, it became increasingly clear that the retro shtick was a dead end. "It was easy to make a lot of dough playing Johnny Burnette and Gene Vincent covers all over the Front Range," DeVille admits, "but we decided we wanted to follow a different path. We didn't want to be pigeonholed as a revival act."
This shift was slow. The album Texas Voodoo Surf, released in 1990, was dominated by music that harkened back to the Fifties, while the subsequent Guitaro Loco was another sonic flashback intended as an instrumental concept album. "It was supposed to be in the spirit of Link Wray and Dick Dale," DeVille notes, "and I think we did it too early, because that stuff's coming back. We weren't that lucky with it."
Rather than hanging up its spurs, Mustang Lightning hit the road, repeatedly touring the Midwest and the South. The threesome--presently including Rhoades, a Memphis native, on bass--soon caught the attention of Monkey Hill, a subsidiary of the Ichiban and Sky imprints called home by bands such as the Continental Drifters and the Flat Duo Jets. When a contract was offered, the trio drove back and forth between Denver and New Orleans to record its label debut. This process ultimately became so exhausting that they decided to relocate. "We were getting tired of the cold weather," DeVille admits, "and New Orleans was a city that we liked. And the Zephyrs [the AAA baseball team that preceded the Colorado Rockies] had just moved down here. But mostly it was because of the deal with Monkey Hill. We decided it wouldn't be in our best interest to be a thousand miles away."
While Mustang Lightning has yet to set the world on fire, DeVille points out that the album's been added to the playlists of over 100 mainly college and public-radio stations across the country and has just been released in France to notable acclaim. He's also more than happy to drop the names of some of the people with whom the group has been hanging out since moving south: Alex Chilton, the Cowsills and former dB Peter Holsapple, who DeVille says will be lending a hand on the Mustangs' next album, already in pre-production.
As for the Denver scene, DeVille says it seems to be improving--but not quickly enough to suit him. "A lot of bands get overlooked because the music industry's not there," he claims. "That's why when we had an opportunity to make a break, we did. But it's my opinion that we wouldn't have become the band we are today if it wasn't for the years we spent in Denver."
Mojo Nixon, with Mustang Lightning and 16 Horsepower. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $12, 290-TIXS or 294-9281.