A few years ago, I bought an old V-8 Chevy with over 141,000 miles on it. I knew that these cars were the marvels of their time, featuring quick acceleration, plush and spacious interiors, and a heavenly smooth ride. I also knew that buying American iron with over 100,000 miles on it is risky at best. True to form, The Impaler, as I nicknamed her, proved the most erratic car I ever owned. When she performed, she swung like sixty. When she broke down, which was frequently, she was a royal pain in the ass. Unfortunately, the same could be said of Robert Gordon during his February 8 show at the Kool Kat Klub.
The rockabilly rave up started smoothly with a subdued set from Th’ Flyin’ Saucers. Their punkabilly sound took on less punk and more ‘billy, with Johnny Rebel trading his tonsil-shredding scream for a charming country twang. Rebel’s guitar playing took on a more traditional aura, swapping heavy distortion for tasteful touches of echo and overdrive, ala Scotty Moore. A pleasant surprise was Th’ Saucers’ cover of Elvis Presley’s “One Night,” restoring Smiley Lewis’ original sexual lyrics. Overall, it was a very satisfying set from one of the few unpretentious bands in Cowtown.
Shifting into second gear, we meet Detroit’s Twistin’ Tarantulas. Fronted by former Flyin’ Saucers’ bassist Pistol Pete, The Tarantulas proved a highly capable and enjoyable rockabilly trio. Unknown to Columbus audiences, Pete is one helluva singer, belting in a Carl Perkins-like baritone while slapping an all-black doghouse bass. The other two were equally adept, with spot-on drumming and sizzling Link Wray licks from the guitarist’s sparkly Gretsch Silver Jet. And if that wasn’t enough, The Twistin’ Tarantulas closed with a punkabilly rendition of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” Like, real cool, Daddy-o!
After a more than brief intermission, the show slipped into a very shaky top gear. The Twistin’ Tarantulas reappeared, this time as Robert Gordon’s backing band. From an ominous run-through of “Rumble,” the band launched into the opening riff of “The Way I Walk,” from Gordon’s infamous release, “Fresh Fish Special.” Tension built for the next two minutes as the band played the riff ad nauseum, but something was wrong—Gordon was nowhere to be seen! Visibly frustrated, The Tarantulas shot pissed-off glares at one another, and Pistol Pete could be seen mouthing, “What the fuck is going on?” Finally, slit-eyed and holding a plastic cup filled with a whiskey-colored liquid, the star of the show sauntered onto the stage.
At first, it seemed like “King” Gordon was worth the wait. Still rail-thin and quiff-headed, he looked like an older version of the cat on the cover of “Rock’billy Boogie.” With his baritone as smooth and powerful as ever, the great one sailed through “The Way I Walk” until the final bar, when the P.A. system died cold.
After an eternity, the soundman got the house system running, and the show resumed. Mr. Legendary rocked through crowd favorites from all points of his career, including “Black Slacks,” “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” “The Fool,” and a couple of unknown newer tunes. Less than ten songs into the set and at the peak of audience excitement, Gordon waved good-bye and left the stage. As an overall feeling of being cheated began to hang over the audience, Kool Kat owner Bruce Nutt grabbed the mike and led the fans in a cheer to get Gordon back.
After another eternity, dear Robert returned, sang three songs, and meandered away. Once again, Nutt took the stage, and coaxed another slightly less enthusiastic cheer. Gordon returned, belted a beautiful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” and slipped into oblivion. That’s it, folks: show is over.
As the night drew to a close, a clubful of Robert Gordon fans walked away elated but confused. On one hand, they experienced one of the greatest voices of the new wave rockabilly revival pumping new life into old favorites. On the other hand, the fans were annoyed by their hero’s subtle arrogance and apathy towards them. Just like my old Chevy, when Robert Gordon performed, he performed brilliantly. When he didn’t, he was a pain in the ass—a legendary pain in the ass!
--James E. Hutter