By Noah Hubbell
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By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
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By Dave Herrerra
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"When you talk American culture, you've got to start with music," says Ray Condo, frontman of Ray Condo and His Ricochets. "That's the meat and potatoes of this country. It's the music that broke all the rules, and society followed. There's nothing better in the history of the world than American culture, problems and all."
Given the Ricochets' hepped-up amalgamation of vintage Western swing, rockabilly and other red-white-and-blue genres, these patriotic words come as no surprise--but Condo's nationality does. Even though he's as musically American as hot dogs, cheeseburgers and actors turned politicians, he hails from a land to the north. "I love it when people come up to us and ask if we're from Tennessee or Texas, and then they find out we're these crazy Canucks from Vancouver," he divulges with a chuckle. "It blows their minds."
Like many immigrants, Condo seems more American than many U.S. natives--especially when it comes to music. "I think there's a cultural genocide under way in this country," he declares. "And I get a little militant and angry about it, because when you're messing with people's culture, well, that's sacred. And if you take it away from people, you're going to have problems. Culture's more important than food and shelter." He has some serious questions about today's manufactured, market-focused music: "Where are the nutrients in it? Where are the real values for people to identify with each other? And how are we going to get Americans becoming one big, beautiful nation again?"
The answer, he believes, can be found in the work of bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with whom Condo has been touring of late, that are going back in time to discover the country's musical past. In his opinion, "The whole rock thing is kind of passe now, and the kids have heard it all. They've heard all the power chords, the grunge, the ambient stuff, and they want to know about something else. Now they're getting hip to the fact that they do have a heritage they're not familiar with. They might have heard a bit of Hank Williams, but that's just the tip of the iceberg." He adds, "How long we can eat McDonald's or listen to McMusic before people start wanting some real stuff again?"
Condo's taste for genuine sounds can be traced back to Ottawa, Canada, where he grew up in a home that featured Fifties rock and country-and-Western as its soundtrack. During the mid-Sixties, when Condo entered high school, his interests turned to the Beatles, whose tunes he went on to play in a series of school bands. But he didn't make his first serious go of a musical career until the late Seventies, when he became the bassist for a punk group called the Secret V's. The group played throughout Canada for three years and released a few recordings. But, Condo recalls, "by the early Eighties, I was getting kind of fed up with punk--because I realized it was just an angry statement that couldn't last. You can't sustain that kind of angst and anger. So I started going back to my roots--listening to Hank and digging deeper. And rockabilly was what woke us up to our roots. When I started listening to the legends again, it was really fresh on the ears and big on the soul factor. I got reborn."
To give voice to his newfound convictions, Condo helped form a roots-rock outfit, the Weird Vibes, that had a regular gig for five years at a Vancouver warehouse/speakeasy. He insists that the city was the perfect place for a former punk to discover the music of America: "It was really what you could call 'Liverpool meets Nashville.' We had this wonderful mix, way before Seattle. Seattle was nothing in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We used to go down the West Coast, and there'd be nothing until you hit Frisco or L.A. But Vancouver is in British Columbia, so we had this Anglo connection to England. When the Pistols took off, we were only one or two beats behind them and picked right up on it. But we also had the American connection and a good honky-tonk tradition. We were in the right place at the right time to absorb things."
Following the demise of the Vibes, Condo formed a hillbilly thrash outfit branded the Hardrock Goners in honor of Hardrock Gunter, a rock-and-roll forerunner now living in Golden ("Rock's Roles," February 29, 1996). When Condo is told about Gunter's whereabouts, he is both thrilled and stunned. "Man, oh man," he gushes. "I wasn't even aware that he was alive. I discovered him by going through the rockabilly and country bins looking for the old, obscure stuff. He was a super-big influence on us, and that's exactly where we got the name."
When the Goners disbanded in 1995, Condo put together the Ricochets, which includes steel guitarist Jimmy Roy, guitarist Stephen Nikleva, stand-up bassist Clive Jackson and drummer Steve Taylor. Since then the act has released two stellar albums on San Francisco's Joaquin imprint. The latest, Door to Door Maniac, is a barn-burning example of what happens when the finer elements of American music are resurrected by someone who knows what to do with them. The disc features tasty jump blues and swing delivered with an emphasis on recklessness and grit that sets it apart from the work of more martini-friendly contemporaries. "She Likes to Boogie Real Low," "Feelin' No Pain" and "Shadow My Baby" leap from the speakers amid bursts of exuberant slap bass, loose-wristed drumming and high-caliber guitar punch. Meanwhile, Condo's vocals, which easily shift from satiny croons to crazy-cat shouts, provide the proper hillbilly touches with a gravy of on-the-edge danger. His versatility is epitomized by the juxtaposition of Billie Holiday's smoky "Tell Me More" with "Great Shakin' Fever," a reverbed, runaway train of a song that does the Johnny Burnette Trio proud.