Ray Condo – Ready to rockabilly, from the ’50s to the ’00s
Survive long enough as a musician and the trends are bound to come around your way again. So it goes for Ray Condo, who now finds himself playing the kind of music he loved growing up in ’50s and early ’60s.
It’s been a long, strange trip to this point, though, as Condo reflected from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, shortly after returning from seven weeks on the road with his band, the Ricochets. They were out supporting the ensemble’s third record, High & Wild, on Joaquin Records.
“The ’50s and ’60s, that was a pretty good time to get some nutrients,” Condo said of his musical education. He remembers such seminal moments as Elvis on Ed Sullivan’s show, and it didn’t hurt that his mother was a country music fan. “I pretty much grew up with a guitar on my lap,” he recalls. Condo, who turned 50 this year, also shares an unlikely background with some of the great rockers of the ’60s: a stint in art school. “Yeah, I was a failed artiste,” he laughed.
His backwoods roots show when he talks about the late ’60s and early ’70s. “I never did get too far into that hippie rock thing,” he says, making clear his disinterest in “millionaire revolutionaries running around looking like girls.”
Punk rock arrived in the nick of time and, in a circuitous way, led him back to roots-rock. “I was already an old geezer by then, but the punk thing was really refreshing,” Condo said. “I liked the look of it, I liked the attitude.” Truth be told, he also liked the fact that “you had to cut your fucking hair off.”
Condo played bass with the Vancouver punk band the Secret V’s until he started feeling his age a bit. “Thrashing all of the time got a bit old for me,” he confesses. About that time, though, he fell into a local rockabilly scene that had been an offshoot from punk.
In 1984, Condo fronted the Hardrock Goners, who started in Montreal, where they were pretty easy to spot. “We were the only rednecks in town, so we got noticed pretty quick,” Condo recalled. Some trips to Toronto yielded even more acclaim, and they proceeded on to Europe, where fans’ appreciation for old American rock ‘n’ roll is dependable.
Eventually the Hardrock Goners broke up and Condo aligned himself with the Ricochets, with whom he has played since 1995. They tackle a hard-nosed mix of rockabilly, Western swing, jazz, country and blues. The current lineup includes Jimmy Roy, steel guitar and second lead guitar; Pete Turland, upright bass; Steve Taylor, drums; and Stephen Nikleva, lead guitar and mandolin. Condo plays rhythm guitar and sax in addition to singing.
As with the band’s previous two records, there’s nothing obvious in the song selection on High & Wild. Condo assays everything from Mose Allison (“Parchman Farm”) and obscure rockabilly (the Glen Barber-penned title track) to Lester Young (the instrumental “Lester Jumps In”) and Cole Porter (“What Is This Thing Called Love”). Condo and company go back into the ’30s for other material, including Henry “Red” Allen’s “Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing” and the Crystal Springs Ramblers’ “Fort Worth Stomp”.
“To my ears, it’s time tested,” Condo said of this music. “Twenty-some fucking years this alternative rockabilly circuit has been going on. No Lollapalooza, no corporate support, no airplay, and it still survives. A lot of credit goes to the Europeans who have kept it alive while North Americans were just pretty much out of the loop. It’s still underbelly after all these years.”