Austin, Texas, has produced plenty of talented musicians that a young band like the Derailers might emulate.
Yet instead of looking to such graduates of Austin’s progressive country-rock school as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hanckock and Nanci Griffith, the Derailers seem to have turned their gaze west, specifically to Buck Owens’ Bakersfield, Calif., sound, for their main source of inspiration.
The Derailers practically held their own honky-tonk clinic Wednesday night in the courtyard of the Long Beach Museum of Art. Playing numerous covers during two hourlong sets, the quartet brought a contemporary edge to classics by Bakersfield favorite sons Owens and Merle Haggard and others by Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Marty Robbins and Ray Price.
In fact, when the audience cheered the opening notes to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” lead singer-rhythm guitarist-songwriter Tony Villanueva smiled and quipped, “Can’t get too much of a good song, huh?”
But the Derailers are more than just a living jukebox. What makes the young foursome--which formed in 1993 and also features lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Brian Hofeldt, plus a new rhythm section of bassist James Duncan and drummer Mark Horn--so promising is the quality, if not the consistency, of their own material.
The Derailers drew heavily Wednesday from their two Dave Alvin-produced albums, “Jackpot” (1996) and last year’s “Reverb Deluxe.” (Alvin, by the way, will be joined by Orange County country-roots rocker Chris Gaffney at the Long Beach Museum on Aug. 19.)
That meant lots of tunes about lyin’, cheatin’, boozin’ and broken hearts. Some, including “She Left Me Cold,” “Lies, Lies, Lies” and “100% Pure Fool,” were well-played but offered little more than the standard thematic fare.
Things picked up with several more fully drawn compositions. “Lover’s Lie” tells of a betrayed man who prefers to turn a blind eye to his lover’s unfaithfulness rather than face the consequences. In a deep, mournful voice, Villanueva sang: “I don’t want to live with the sad truth / I’d rather live with a lover’s lie.”
Another highlight was “Can’t Stop a Train,” a gut-wrenching ballad that examines the hopeless feeling when love turns to pain, then barrels out of control. Villanueva’s aching vocals combined with Hofeldt’s piercing, well-timed guitar lines in creating a haunting, near-desperate mood.
The Derailers’ defining characteristic clearly is honky-tonk country, but it’s not a band of purists. Hofeldt, who grew up in Oregon listening to Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers as well as country music, brings both rockabilly and pop sensibilities to the table. Plus, he writes irresistible melodies.
His up-tempo instrumental “Ellen” has more hooks than a trout pond. And “California Angel” and “Tears in Your Eyes"--both co-written by Hofeldt--are soaring, harmony-laden, sing-along numbers that deserve to be in regular rotation on the radio.
The group’s only misstep was a cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” included as a hidden track on “Reverb Deluxe.” Unable to revive the soulful, funky vibe of the original, this version simply fell flat.
Still, when so much of today’s mainstream country music is utterly predictable, the Derailers’ willingness to take a risk like that is praiseworthy.
* The Derailers play tonight at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $6-$12. (714) 549-1512.