by Jordan Green
“I get the feeling we’re the only Americana band that plays KISS riffs while Corky tunes,” Jerry Chapman said midway through the Mediocre Bad Guys’ April 18 set at the Garage in Winston-Salem to celebrate the release of their self-titled full-length debut.
That succinctly captures the approach of a Winston-Salem area unit that evolved from a Jack Johnson cover band into an Americana group that tends more towards pop-smart than authentic roots.
The band was essentially a quintet, with Chapman on bass, Corky McClellan on rhythm guitar, Doug Davis on lead, Steve Lindsley on keyboards and Les Slate on drums and vocals. Chapman, Davis and Lindsley wrote all the material on the new album, and Ricky Lee Nathey played pedal steel on three tracks, but the Mediocre Bad Guys’ lead vocalist is seated behind the drum kit rather than in front of the band.
Prior to the release of the album, Lindsley decamped for Charlotte.
Energized and in good humor, the band, with Lindsley and Nathey in tow for the special occasion, took the stage at the Garage just after 10 p.m. and briskly worked through the dozen songs on the new album, playing them in order of appearance.
Bespectacled and wearing his trademark crushed straw cowboy hat, Chapman acted as a kind of frontman for the group, and on this night his self-deprecating wit was on fine display. He set the tone for a fun evening with a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously, joking near the end of the set about a single ringing chord in the band’s song “Turpentine” that bears some similarity with the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).”
The fact that the band’s three songwriters compose for someone else prevents the band from becoming any one member’s ticket to glory. With ample experience on the corporate/wedding-party circuit through journeyman work in area cover bands the Vagabond Saints Society (Davis and Chapman) and the Plaids (Davis and McClellan), the individual members have the chops to easily sync with each other on these convincing original songs.
As a singer Slate possesses a sensitive, affecting instrument that conveys by turns determination, sweetness and regret.
“Gonna Get It Right,” the lead track on the album, showcases the band’s musical palette as well as any other. A bracing confection of alt-country and pop, part mid-to-late 1970s Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and part Steve Earle & the Dukes, the song makes a buoyant entry on the strength of a rhythmic union between McClellan’s acoustic guitar playing and Lindsley’s piano work, accented by convicted harmonica playing by Chapman. Though his playing isn’t featured on the recorded track, Nathey’s pedal steel on “Gonna Get It Right,” as others, was a highlight of the show at the Garage.
Davis stepped out as a guitar player, contributing crisp leads on the Lindsley-penned “The Dance” and other tunes, and ripping the guts out of the instrument at appropriate intervals. Chapman is a kinetic, punchy bass player, entertaining to watch onstage, shown off to best effect on the Caribbean-inflected “Get It Together.” Davis, Chapman and McClellan grace Slate’s lead vocals on several songs with finely wrought, three-part harmonies that bear the imprint of their collective experience covering Fleetwood Mac, Cheap Trick and innumerable other standards from the pop songbook.
The undeniable showstopper of the evening was “Cold Comfort,” written by Davis and Lindsley. Davis’ shredding guitar intro gives the song a soulful windup that vaguely recalls Irma Thomas’ “Wish Someone Would Care.” Slate’s vocals bare a raw nerve of regret that cuts to the quick with the denouement: “Take these treasures in store/ Hold this ransom and more/ I will give you my word/ But it’s cold comfort now.”
It’s soul music, and at the same time feels right at home in the Carolina canon alongside any of the great Whiskeytown or Jeffrey Dean Foster songs. To confound any comparisons further, Davis adds a thrilling falsetto vocal that wouldn’t be out of place on a Nazareth record.
Introducing the song, Chapman said, “If everything goes as planned Doug Davis is going to be your favorite guitar player in seven minutes.”
Judging by the ecstatic response from the audience at the end of the song, the guitar player delivered on that promise in spades.