The Ozark Mountain Daredevils Keep on Churnin’
The Ozark Mountain Daredevils—Bottleneck Blues Bar—St. Charles, MO—July 16, 2009
Okay, full disclosure: I love the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. First of all, with all the numbers in, they were the hairiest band of the ’70s, a considerable achievement obviously. If you missed them, the Daredevils were a bunch (up to eleven members at times, judging by those old album covers) of superskinny, barefoot ‘n’ stoned, harmonica-loving beard jockeys, carved out of Levon Helm’s Deep, with cool Old-West names like John Dillon and Steve Cash and Supe Granda. They also had more great songs than Firefall, Poco, and America combined.
Whatever happened to them? Oh, you know—thirty-five years of breakups, commercial declines, reorganizations, retirements, reunions, etc. They have continued to reform and stage comeback attempts mostly for the benefit of, besides their own wallets, the few thousand Missouri fans who were in college in the ’70s and got wasted at Daredevils concerts/pig roasts. Not that the Dares didn’t reach a national audience—they were coast to coast around ’74, charting with a string of A&M records and scoring big hits with singles like “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” and especially “Jackie Blue,” still a soft-rock radio staple. Don’t let that gentle MOR tune fool you, however—it sounds like almost nothing else in their canon, and these boys’ live shows took no prisoners, rocking way harder than their studio albums would suggest.
Their fans in the Midwest listened to the Daredevils’ back-to-the-country transcendentalism and knew that every song held universal truths, even the one that maintained that laser beams were like sawed-off dreams. They were songs only available on the weird radio of the mid-’70s, all about standing on the rock, getting high on homemade wine, flying away on home hallelujah, and hoping the choo-choo train runs on time. Plus, they had the greatest song about transporting chickens of all time. But then Reagan got elected and everybody shaved and no one wanted to hear the Jew’s-harp anymore and the band’s initials were stolen by synth-duo Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Breaks your heart.
But the Daredevils are still active. Sort of. Last night they played at the Bottleneck Blues Bar, a handsome club inside the schmaltz-glitz of the sprawling Ameristar Casino in the burbs of St. Louis. I caught the first of two shows last night, both of which were full (at $50 a pop) and the merch table was impressively stocked, so it remains a mystery why these guys don’t play more often. The band performed polished versions of its best-loved material although they were missing their two best singers from their heyday—Larry Lee (who sang “Jackie Blue”) and Randle Chowning (“If You Wanna Get to Heaven”) were MIA. Both are still working musicians in Missouri, but only occasionally sit in with the Dares, leaving the current lineup in the hands of an original trio—guitarist Dillon, harp-blower Cash, and bassist Granda. John Dillon took the lion’s share of vocal duties last night, but harmonies, formerly a Daredevils calling card, were thin and supplied mostly by the audience.
But, hey, give the ‘Devils their due. It was a lively, crowd-pleasing show, getting quickly to “Chicken Train,” with Dillon playing a bowharp and Granda providing an extended chicken-clucking solo that had the place in stitches. Supe is awesome, by the way—he’s long been the face and spirit of this band because (a) he’s the most animated performer and (b) he never cut his hair; while the other dudes now look like claims adjusters, Supe is still the southern rock rascal from the album covers. Last night, when he came out looking like a member of the Muppets rock band, with his long beard and blowsy clothes and beach-hippie hat, holding a glass of red wine, I knew we were in good hands. Other highlights were a grooving version of the deep cut “Southern Cross,” from 1975’s Car Over the Lake album, and a very cool rendition of “Black Sky” from their debut. Steve Cash took lead vocals on both of those, and while his voice is thinner these days, his harmonica will still tear you a new one. He’s one of the great, but under-appreciated, harp players in rock history, and last night was a reminder, especially during that long coda in “If You Wanna Get to Heaven”–I’ve tried for years, but I’ve never been able to figure out how he’s doing that. The band worked through the gospel-grass classic “Fly Away Home,” the awesome country lilt of “You Made It Right,” and finally a breezy singalong with “It’ll Shine When It Shines.” The band played just 65 minutes, but they worked quickly, getting to fifteen tunes, and their earnest readings of these beloved songs did plenty to satisfy last night’s loyal, appreciative crowd.
And guess what? After the show, I went backstage and met the guys. And while John Dillon acted like I had manure smeared on my shirt, Supe Granda was the coolest guy alive, taking me back into the dressing room, handing me cold beers, and chatting it up about Daredevils lore past and present. We talked about the diversity of the original band, the amalgamation of sounds, instruments, and players that formed a group that he described as “genre-less,” and the challenge of having five primary songwriters in a single band. He told me how, in the ’70s, A&M chief Jerry Moss tried to get the Daredevils to move to LA to become as rich and famous as the Eagles, but they declined: “We had farms in the Ozarks on rivers with blackberries and home-grown tomatoes.” (Supe has lived in Nashville for years now, and here’s a soundbite exclusively for Springfield, Missouri readers: He said when he moved to Tennessee, he missed three things about Springfield—cashew chicken, Mexican Villa, and Ned Reynolds.) Finally, with time running out, Supe mentioned his new book, It Shined: The Saga of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, an exhaustive 500-page history of the band. Suddenly, he jumped up and told me to follow him, and we marched through the crowd that was waiting for the next show, out to the lobby of fans shouting his name (“Just keep moving; if you stop you’re dead,” he told me), into the elevator, and up to his hotel room, where he rifled through his bag and handed me a new copy of his book. I heard echoes of the night’s last song, “You only live until you’re dead, and you got to give and give and give.” Supe was in a giving mood last night, both onstage and off. Shine on, Supe.
1. Keep On Churnin’
2. Chicken Train
3. Fly Away Home
4. Country Girl
5. Southern Cross
6. Standing on the Rock
7. Homemade Wine
8. Jackie Blue
9. Ode to Mel Bay
10. You Made It Right
11. Black Sky
12. Gonna Buy Me a Car
13. If You Wanna Get to Heaven
14. Ooh Boys (It’s Hot)
15. It’ll Shine When It Shines