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The Freewheelers Look to Music of the Past for Their Future Album

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<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

The Freewheelers were planning ahead. Their debut record of rousing rock, soul and blues was just a few weeks old, but now the band was here in singer Luther Russell’s Hollywood hotel room, already talking about the next one.

“It’s going to be like doo-wop cabaret,” Russell said last week, talking in a warm and excited rasp, his face framed within dark sideburns and a beatnik’s beard.

Recent club shows have had the Freewheelers already playing in a more theatrical rock groove, drawing upon elements of the upbeat sounds of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s a history Russell is well acquainted with: His grandfather, lyricist Bob Russell, wrote “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” among other American standards. And his great-uncle, Bud Green, is best known for co-writing “Sentimental Journey.”

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“I’ve grown up on Bob Dylan and all that, but there was a certain standard set up by people before 1955,” Russell said. “My whole family’s been involved with music, and it’s been so since the minstrel days.”

Meanwhile, the singer-guitarist had been waiting in this hotel room for word on the Freewheelers’ tour plans from their management and Geffen Records. But Russell’s only visible luggage was a portable stereo, leaning in a corner and surrounded by scattered CDs from the Beatles, Neil Young, Leon Russell, Stevie Wonder and others.

Soon, band members Jason Hiller and Chris Joyner were unpacking their horns. “We can’t play these things,” admitted Joyner, clumsily hooking together his trombone. “We just got them yesterday.”

But in a moment, Hiller was blowing his saxophone alongside Russell’s guitar chords for a ragged, squeaking rendition of The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” and, later, the Faces’ “Ooh La La.”

The band was learning these new instruments--saxophone, trombone and trumpet--in preparation for recording their follow-up to “The Freewheelers” several months from now. Hiring session players would certainly take less effort, said keyboardist Joyner, “but this is just more personal to us. And this way we can go into the studio at any hour and not have to worry about hiring some guys. We’ll always have the horns there.”

The Freewheelers are old-time purists in this way. And the new album was recorded live and with minimal studio effects under producer John Fishbach, who has worked as producer or engineer on albums by Stevie Wonder, War, the Circle Jerks and Carole King.

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“When you listen to some of the music out today there is nothing real about that backing track,” said Hiller, normally bassist in the group. “The instruments are not physically there. It’s all computerized.”

“The Freewheelers” is a pointedly organic record, from the barroom rock of “No More Booze (On Tuesdays)” to the raw and emotional balladry of “Slim Chance in Hell” and “Baby’s in New York.”

The only annoyance since releasing “The Freewheelers” has been all those comparisons with Bruce Springsteen by some critics who have noted the use by both acts of raspy vocals and dual keyboards. “You’ve got to call it rock ‘n’ roll, because that’s what it is,” Hiller said. “The problem is that rock ‘n’ roll today means anything, from Poison to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

Earlier at the Coach and Horses bar a few blocks away, Russell was shouting at his band mates for another round of Dee Clark’s “Raindrops” on the jukebox. He had only turned 21 this month, but was drinking like a veteran, talking proudly of his band, which also includes keyboardist Dave Sobel and drummer John Hofer, formerly of the far more ethereal act Downy Mildew.

Leaning forward, Russell repeated his faith in the music that has inspired him, from Dylan to Curtis Mayfield, and how it might inspire contemporary pop audiences if only they were exposed to it. “If those same 15-year-olds are instead handed the Pogues or the Raspberries or something, they are going to be somewhat more enlightened individuals when they get older. I think it’s the media and the industry that are the real panderers.”

As for his own band, he added: “There’s nothing I can’t do with the Freewheelers. What do I need to be solo with a band like that? I’m afraid of them going solo.”

VANDALISM: Veteran Los Angeles punk rock act the Vandals are due back on local concert stages early next month, in the continuing fallout from releasing their first album since 1988’s “Slippery When Ill.”

The new album, “Fear of a Punk Planet,” was produced by Bob Casale of Devo, with the current lineup of singer Dave Quackenbush, founding bassist Joe Escalante, guitarist Warren Fitzgerald and drummer Josh Freese.

Like Suicidal Tendencies, the Vandals were among the first hard-core acts to break onto the airwaves, with such songs as “Urban Struggle” and “Lady Killer.” And they have since toured with rap acts Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy and LL Cool J.

“Over the last decade they’ve covered a lot of musical ground,” said Bruce Duff of Triple-X Records, which released “Fear of a Punk Planet” in August. “I can tell you that this band has some of the weirdest connections as any band that we’ve worked with. They had their record release party at this really posh art gallery.”

In recent years, the Vandals have largely abandoned the “cow punk” sound that followed their initial club successes in the early 1980s, and the new album is accented with hip-hop overtones. “Now they’ve gone back to what they’re known for: playing loud and fast punk rock music,” Duff said.

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