The rebel underground

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by Anthony Harrison

Black shirts. Hot rods. Muttonchops. Upright basses. A sea of ink. Chicken-pickin’ Telecasters. Raven hair pulled back in buns, pinned with flowers. Elvis.

The tide driving it all: Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Starting Friday, July 3, the 15th annual Heavy Rebel Weekender festival flooded Winston-Salem’s Millennium Center with PBR and associated memorabilia. An enormous, inflatable can of Pabst Blue Ribbon sat on the main stage’s left side. Flag-sized posters of rebellious icons from Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to Debbie Harry and Duke Ellington lined the walls, but at the bottom of the banners was that familiar blue ribbon.

And everywhere you looked, everyone drank PBR.

Winston-Salem’s own country favorites, the bo-stevens, took the main stage around 6:30 p.m., fronted by Richard Boyd II playing mid-tempo rhythm on an acoustic-electric Taylor guitar. Jeff Shu accompanied dreamily on pedal steel, and Greg Bell played some hot guitar licks on an emerald Tele.

The Silverhounds on the main stage. (Anthony Harrison)
The Silverhounds on the main stage. (Anthony Harrison)

Later on, the Silverhounds from New Jersey seemed the love child of Rush, rockabilly and Slayer, with the lead vocalist/bassist screeching high-pitched melodies while slapping his jet-black upright with ferocious intensity, running the dog instead of walking it.

The party wasn’t only rolling upstairs, though.

Taking a right from the main room, a rusty car hood dripping with pink paint pointed downstairs towards the advertised venue: “Underground.”

The first room of the Underground, appropriately named the Wiggle Room, featured burlesque dancers flaunting their wiles in black latex lingerie and holding giant feathered fans like peacocks’ tails to swanky, muted trumpet and twinkling piano.

As one of the Wiggle Room’s main attractions, Greensboro’s scarlet-haired, buxom beauty Ruby Red slinked onstage to Van Halen’s cover of “Louie, Louie,” switching her hips back and forth, removing her black elbow-length gloves finger by finger with a teasing air. Nearly everything else was discarded with the same coy attitude, all the way down to her swinging tassels.

Unfortunately, only pre-approved photography was allowed. Sorry, readers.

Moving further into the chemic-smelling depths of the Underground, one came across the middle room of the labyrinth — the Jailhouse.

Motorbilly drove the crowd wild in the Jailhouse. (Anthony Harrison)
Motorbilly drove the crowd wild in the Jailhouse. (Anthony Harrison)

Raleigh’s Motorbilly ramped up in the Jailhouse, sounding like an Irish pub band raised on bourbon and fried chicken. Their sound was almost too well suited for the room, with the thunderous bass and floor toms reverberating off the brick walls and columns, subsequently rumbling in each attendee’s chest cavity, elevating heart rates to the A-fib tempo. A cherry-sunburst Les Paul spat out crunching riffs and blinding-quick, virtuosic solos, and the man behind the guitar snarled songs like “Pretty F***ed Up.”

The frontman and drummer often sang together and interacted theatrically.

“How about a fast one?” the frontman asked.

“Not too f***in’ fast!” the drummer shouted back.

The pounding, 100-mph country rhythm they served up made the prior conversation almost a cruel joke.

“We’re so happy to see your shining, happy faces here on Friday,” the drummer said later, “’cause y’all won’t look like this on Sunday.”

The very depths of the basement led to the Underground proper. This deepest stage already smelled like the sting of Marlboros and the malty sweetness of — what else? — Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Here, the Wet Boys from Virginia Beach performed sludgy dirges led by Tomahawk Brock, a scrawny dude with a voice like a belching Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Of all the frontmen, he might have engaged the audience the most. He would stumble into the crowd while wailing about life in the mines, typifying a boisterous, drunken rocker to a T.

“Let’s all get drunk together and see what happens,” Brock said.

And he would be pelted with empty beer cans.

“This is our last song,” Brock said. “It’s called ‘Swamp Dingus,’ and it is definitely about the devil. Welcome to hell.”

More cans launched at him as he railed the chorus, “The devil wants a man with blood on his soles.”

No matter how much the crowd appreciated the Wet Boys, Dex Romweber drew the biggest following into the Underground.

Chapel Hill-based Romweber is a living legend. Even if the cans thrown at other acts were signs of appreciation, everyone knew not to do the same to Dex.

All it seemed anyone could do was marvel at a journeyman at work, playing a road-worn, black Silvertone with spanking-clean tone while his voice alternated between Johnny Cash croon and growling yips and shouts.

Though he played solo, Romweber knew how to work his guitar, playing chord-based solos and churning out riffs and choppy lines while letting open strings ring to fill out the sound. And Romweber could shift on a dime from rollicking rockabilly to jazzy ballad or trashy surf to country blues — sometimes within the same song.

One of the highlights was the penultimate number, an extended guitar improvisation that alternated between a rolling surf-punk progression to a Texas shuffle.

That’s how it started, anyway.

He worked the guitar masterfully, using the lower strings as percussion, forming a harmonic backdrop with the middle strings and playing lead lines on top. At times, the chord voicings got so dense they practically became just noise.

“Good night, folks,” Romweber said to the thunderous applause. “I’ll leave y’all with a positive song.”

It was almost la-di-da when Romweber sang, “You’ll find that life’s worthwhile/ If you just smile.”

But his attitude reflected the point of Heavy Rebel Weekender: Just have some damn fun.