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"Yes, we have been to Tennessee," says Mike Taveira, lead guitarist for the Denver-based rockabilly band the Tennessee Boys. "We have been to the airport there." He's smiling, but a second later, his brow furrows. "No, we have not been to Tennessee," he amends. "It was Texas. We have been to the Texas airport."
This confusion is understandable given that Taveira and the rest of the Boys (lead singer/drummer Pedro Matos, acoustic guitarist Jorge Oliveira and stand-up bass player Nuno Silva) have been on U.S. soil for only around three months now. With their greased-back hair, fashionable tattoos and white tees worn beneath open-collared shirts, they look more American than the cast of Rebel Without a Cause, but their hometown is half a world away--a seaside community in Portugal, in fact. They came a long way to perform this Wednesday-night gig at Ziggie's Saloon in Denver, and now that they're getting their chance, they aim to prove that they can twist and bop as well as any hipster reared in the nation where Carl Perkins first slipped on those blue-suede shoes.
"What we want to do with our lives," Matos says in the pronounced accent he shares with the rest of the Boys, "is play the rockabilly music."
"The proof is that we are here," Oliveira offers. "We left our college, we left our parents, we left our girlfriends. We left everything. We had to wait for two months to get our visas, and we had to fly on an airplane for 32 hours to get here. We did not see the moon for 32 hours. And when we arrived, it was so high and so dry in Colorado that my nose bled for five days straight."
"It would not stop," Matos confirms.
"But that does not matter," Oliveira continues, "because we just want to play the rockabilly music."
That they do--and they do it so well that the novelty value of listening to a Portuguese rockabilly band becomes moot for most listeners about one minute after the Boys start their set. Tim Kaesemacher, the drummer for Denver's Truth of the Matter, says, "When I first heard that they were from Portugal, I thought it was pretty weird. But then I heard them, and they're really good."
The Boys (who range in age all the way from 20 to 21) are at a loss to explain why they fell in love with the Memphis sound. They were born in Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, but one that's not exactly known as a haven for rockabilly fanatics.
"No," Matos says. "The rockabilly scene was us and a few friends."
"Ten or twenty people," Oliveira estimates.
Matos: "I became interested when I was thirteen years old and I started listening to old records. Elvis. That was the kind of music I enjoyed."
Oliveira: "Everybody knows Elvis Presley in Portugal. He is the king."
"But a lot of people do not know anything else," Taveira insists. "They do not know the real rockabilly."
"They listen to art rock and heavy rock in Portugal. And the technological things," Silva says. "Really, they thought we were from Mars."
By the time they'd entered high school, the foursome had been drawn together by their rockabilly fixation, and soon after forming the Tennessee Boys, they achieved modest success. They appeared twice on nationwide Portuguese television, were the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles and traveled extensively throughout the country. In addition, two Tennessee Boys tracks were selected for Rock and Roll Around the Turn of the Century, Volume 2, a compilation disc released by the Dutch company Rock House Records. The quartet's keynote was authenticity: The Boys wrote original songs such as "Good Lookin' Baby" and "The Burning Miles," and they sang them in English.
"We prefer English," Matos says. "If you sing rockabilly in French, that would kill it."
"Then all you could do is sell it in France," Oliveira reveals.
In short order, the Boys developed into an incredibly tight combo whose sound was highlighted by Taveira's crisp guitar flourishes, Matos's yelping, twangy vocals and steady rhythms (his drum kit consists of a snare and a cymbal), Oliveira's wild acoustic strumming and jubilant background shouts, and Silva's rubbery bass lines. During the band's appearances in Portugal, the slapping technique Silva employs while performing attracted the most attention.
"People would see the slap bass and they would say, `You cannot do that,'" Taveira recalls.
"That is because, in Portugal, there were 40 stand-up bass players," Silva interjects, "and 39 of them played jazz. And jazz stand-up bass players do not slap."
"The people would also say, `You have crazy hair,'" Taveira adds. "They would like us, but when we would play the real rockabilly, they would think we were funny. It was sad."
Equally disappointing was the bandmembers' inability to make a living strictly from their music.
Oliveira notes, "We could not quit our day jobs."
"That is because you cannot sell enough rockabilly records there," Matos says. "So we wanted to get rid of Portugal. But we sent our music to a few European labels, and they denied us."