Robbie Allen and D.D. Wood have been pushing forward with their separate rock careers, but Monday night they paused and hit the rewind button for a fond look back.
For sentimental reasons, and to do a bit of loose, unpretentious rocking, the two singer-songwriters re-formed their old band Gypsy Trash for the first time since 1989. The 40-minute performance at the Blue Cafe showed that some things do get better with age.
During its initial run, Gypsy Trash had the uncertain feel of a side project, which is what it was. Allen, who grew up in Seal Beach, started the band as an outlet for his own singing and songwriting while he was serving a hitch as bassist in the band Tender Fury.
When Wood joined Gypsy Trash in 1987, she was a musical novice, a non-performing member of the first family of Long Beach alternative rock. The marquee names in her household were her brother, Jack Grisham, Tender Fury’s leader (and now front man of the Joykiller) and D.D.'s then-fiance and now-husband Joe Wood, who had succeeded her brother as singer with the band T.S.O.L.
(Yes, this tangle of intertwined family and musical relationships does sound a bit soap operatic.)
It was left to Allen, rather than brother Jack or fiance Joe, to give D.D. her push into the spotlight. One day, Allen arrived at the Grisham homestead on some Tender Fury business and heard D.D. singing and strumming on the porch. Liking what he heard, he invited her into Gypsy Trash.
Back then, it was hard to get a clear fix on the duo’s musical intentions. Allen, who played hard-edged punk/alternative rock in Tender Fury, was showing a boozy, countrified side in which the booze-soaked element could overspill readily into sloppiness. Wood would appear in revealing garb that made her look like a cowgirl gone to seed on the Sunset Strip. It was hard to figure out what Gypsy Trash wanted to be: a sincere updating of the old Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris country-rock partnership, or a raggedy spoof on twangy honky-tonk music.
At the Blue Cafe, the reconstituted band (which also featured bassist J.R. and drummer Max Eidon) made more sense. Allen’s whiskey voice didn’t slosh over into sloppiness, and Wood’s dusky alto, with its dreamily languid tone, was a perfect, cushioning complement.
The lanky Allen punctuated his electric guitar work with plenty of classic roots-rocker kick steps and shimmying, while Wood, a much more confident stage presence nowadays, no longer relied on the vamp approach: In a low-cut blouse, floral skirt and with her blond hair in a ponytail, she was sexy but demure, with an instantly disarming sunbeam of a smile.
It was an evening of smiles all around as the band, having rehearsed just once for the informal show, knocked out a set in which the occasional missed cue or forgotten lyric only added to the folksy charm.
A couple of vintage originals, Allen’s “I Need You Anyway” and Wood’s memorable lament “Whenever the Wind Blows,” served as a quick reminder that there was solid substance behind the old Gypsy Trash. The set also included good recent songs by the two.
Allen’s “Amerasian,” about a soldier who falls in love during a tour of duty in Vietnam, is a crashing three-chord rocker that brought to mind such rough-and-ready types as Joe Ely and Steve Earle. Wood premiered “A River Runnin’ Wild,” a surging song about the effort required to keep romance going over the long haul.
The homestretch featured hard-revving covers of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire” from the Johnny Cash songbook and a soaring encore of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” This time around, there was no confusion as to how Gypsy Trash should be taken. The show was a thoroughly enjoyable conjoining of two likable personalities who happen to have highly complementary styles and voices.
It was well-received by a supportive audience of old friends and old fans in the cozy Blue Cafe, and when it was over Allen and Wood said they’d be willing to play together more often if promoters want to have them.
If there is a second round of Gypsy Trash, it again will be as a side project. Allen and Wood both are pursuing solo careers.
For many years, Allen has been the Ron Wood of the local rock scene, an amiable sidekick with many musical friendships. He either would take a supporting role as backup singer and instrumentalist, or he’d share the spotlight with other singers.
He followed that pattern in Gypsy Trash; in a brief partnership with Englishman Rat Scabies, former drummer with the Damned; and in One Hit Wonder, the splendid punk-pop group he launched in 1992 with his old buddy Dan Root. Allen left OHW late in 1993, a move that disappointed Root but gave him the impetus to emerge as a first-rate front man in one of the local scene’s most winning bands.
Allen’s next stop was the band Rob Rule in which he played guitar, sang backups and contributed to the songwriting. The band, based in Los Angeles, put out an album last year on Mercury Records and toured extensively as an opening act for Dada and Candlebox.
The ever-helpful Allen later jumped in and served as an adjunct member of Dada, taking some of the pressure off ace guitarist Michael Gurley, who was coping with a hand injury that later would require surgery.
Interviewed before the Gypsy Trash set, Allen said a second Rob Rule album is finished but that he is extricating himself from the band and will strike out on his own soon with a project he calls Thermador.
In Thermador, he has rounded up friends he made during his years as a roadie for the Red Hot Chili Peppers: Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard has co-written one song and plays on another, while the core rhythm section consists of Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers and Wag, former bassist with Mary’s Danish. Allen says he has a deal in the works with Atlantic Records; to complete the half-finished album, he aims to bring in more of his buddies to back him up.
Reflecting on the long, circuitous round of supporting and collaborative roles he took before assuming full control of a recording, Allen said, “I think I had to go through all that. You have to learn lessons in life. I had to realize what I really needed to do is what I’m doing now.”
Wood learned a hard lesson about the music business after her solo album, “Tuesdays Are Forever,” came out early in 1993. An engagingly personal, brightly produced amalgam of folk, pop and country strains, it won good reviews. But within a couple of months, Wood was dumped by her label, the much-criticized Disney offshoot Hollywood Records, without having had a chance to tour or to mount a promotional campaign.
She was left miffed but not without a fallback position: She had been training as a teacher, and for the past two years has taught full time at Jefferson Middle School in Long Beach.
“I love teaching,” she said after the Gypsy Trash reunion, enthusing about how she has been able to use songwriting and music as teaching tools in language and geography classes. But she still has ambitions of addressing a much larger public than a classroom full of sixth graders.
Last year she caught Leon Russell’s ear while opening for the noted ‘70s rocker at the Coach House, and he subsequently invited her to record at his home studio in Nashville. After two visits last year, Wood has another session with Russell lined up for September, part of her push for a second chance in the pop marketplace. Having kept up a prolific writing pace, the mother of two says she will have plenty of material available when another chance arises.
As she and Allen stood outside the Blue Cafe on Monday night before their show, Wood still could muster a hearty laugh when she thought back to where her rocky path through the music business began: “I owe all this pain and misery to Robbie!”