New Orleans may just have the richest musical culture of any city in America, but that doesn't mean it's a good place for a musician to make a living. "In my opinion, the best music in the world exists there," says Tommy Malone, singer/guitarist for the Subdudes, a band that includes three of four members from the Crescent City. "But it's virtually impossible to get by there, unless you're a huge name or you play traditional Dixieland down on Bourbon Street."
The group formed in '84 as the Continental Drifters, described by keyboardist/accordionist John Magnie as playing "avant-garde rhythm and blues, crazy stuff, really loud." From the start, jobs were hard to come by. "We were lucky to do more than two or three gigs a month," Malone says.
Perhaps fueled by a nothing-to-lose attitude, Malone joined Magnie for a duo set at famed New Orleans nightclub Tipitina's, where they played a low-key, acoustic-style show. "We both agreed that we enjoyed playing a little more subdued, so we could hear the vocals," Malone says, and pauses. "We looked at one another and the name stuck."
The next week, the four Subdudes showed up at Tips with their new, softer sound. "It was real bare and really pretty rough around the edges," Malone says. "But it was loose and the people loved it. We did it over the next couple of months, listened to some tapes off the (soundboard) and figured, "This has a cool little sound to it.'
Despite influencing the band's musical style, New Orleans would have one more major impact. "It forced us to leave, so I guess you could say it influenced us a lot," Malone says with a wry chuckle. "We got to the point, where in order to survive and keep playing, we needed to figure someplace else to go, someplace fresh where there was a void to fill, where we could become a little more in demand."
The foursome considered New York and L.A., but recognized they might be asking for more of the same. Finally, they settled on Fort Collins, Colo., two hours north of Denver and home to Colorado State University. The destination was not chosen at random. Keyboardist/accordionist John Magnie's parents live there. "So we had someone to fall back on in case we got hungry," Malone says.
In September of 1987, Malone, Magnie, bassist Johnny Ray Allen and percussionist Steve Amadee packed their stuff into a U-Haul trailer, hitched it to the back of a '79 Ford LTD they paid $200 for, painted the band name on the side and started rolling north.
"It seemed as if as soon as we hit town, everybody in Fort Collins was checking out these weird guys with "the Subdudes' painted on an old LTD," Malone recalls. "It started a buzz immediately."
The live gigs kicked in right away. Some friends in nearby Boulder bought the band some recording studio time. The Subdudes expanded their performing circuit to include most of Colorado, and parts of Idaho and Wyoming. The group sported a unique and intimate live show, thanks a great deal to Amadee, who plays a specially rigged tambourine that can sound virtually like an entire drum kit. The group lines up four-across on stage and makes a strong connection with nightclub audiences.
In the spring of '88, the Subdudes finished No. 2 in Musician magazine's "Best Unsigned Band" contest, which brought the major labels courting. Inking a deal with Atlantic, the band teamed with producer Don Gehman (John Cougar Mellencamp, R.E.M.) for its self-titled debut. The results were a bit too squeaky-clean _ the charm of the Subdudes' live show got lost.
The band followed up this year with Lucky, a fine effort that captures the 'Dudes rootsiness as well as tunefulness. This time, they turned to veteran producer Rob Fraboni, who has worked with Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt, two acts with which the Subdudes feel a strong kinship.
Although imbued with the easy grace of acoustic guitars and accordion _ and spurred by Malone's rough-hewn, soulful singing _ the new album shows off the group's more high-energy side. "We wanted more bottom end, more bass, to make it like a soul record," Malone says. "It wasn't so calculated. The first one was very much dictated to Don Gehman's perception of the band. On this one we had major input on every track."
Although more musically satisfying, Lucky has come out of the box slowly. The music doesn't fit prevailing trends in rock, Top 40 or even alternative/college radio. The Subdudes find themselves plugging away, doing countless shows, building strong word-of-mouth. Advocates such as Bruce Hornsby, Linda Ronstadt and Raitt have voiced support. But Malone and company know that sort of thing doesn't get it done in today's highly competitive music business.
"We're constantly concerned about it," Malone says. "We really feel bad for the label (East West America, an Atlantic subsidiary). They're great people. I know it's hard finding a way to get this music to the people. We're definitely open to ideas that they have. We covered an Al Green song (Tired of Being Alone) at their suggestion. But to go beyond that and try some drastic new approach seems ridiculous. That kind of thing rarely works."
AT A GLANCE
The Subdudes at the Club Detroit at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Mad For Electra opens. Tickets are $5 (plus service charge) in advance, available through Ticketmaster; $8 day of show.