To know what rockabilly is (or at least what the Reverend's version of rockabilly is) think Tarantino soundtrack and Golden Earring's "Radar Love" or the Surfaris "Wipe Out." Its pace is frenetic, rumbling like a soup'd up Chevy, rolling like thunder, breaking for surf guitar solos, building towards a big finish -- a "psychobilly freakout." This is the Reverend Horton Heat, the band's name and the stage name of Jim Heath.
A fast rhythm guitarist with a flair for slide and cleanly picked solos, Heath began fast and stayed that way for most of the set at Plush. During the second song, Jimbo Wallace laid down his stand-up bass and slapped at it horizontally while the Rev stepped onto it. It's a practiced move, steady and less like a stunt than a rehearsed routine -- more moonwalk than Eddie Van Halen jump.
The band is older now and after 20 years the veterans have learned to pace themselves. So while the rockabilly sound traditionally evokes youth -- the baby-booming '50s, James Dean, Elvis, and West Coast swing -- its godfather isn't passing the baton; he's playing hard to keep the drum roll rolling.
It's hard to say where this brand of rockabilly is headed; once it looked to movies like "Swingers" and seemed fed only by nostalgia like the Cramps. At other times the surfer punk and the mosh pit seemed to chart its popularity. Now there are Drive-By Truckers and Tiger Army and new blank-dash-billy formulations like punka, psycho, folka, polka. The Rev's approach is simple: lay down a good guitar hook over extremely fast drum beat punctuated by timely non sequiturs like "zombie dumb." It doesn't much say something as it says nothing at all with rare vintage guitars, custom-designed stand-up bass and the coolest drum kit you've ever seen.
"Jimbo" a song from the "the worst album we ever did" was a mosh-pit starter about the bass player. 'J-I-M-B-O/slap bass bones, rock a Billy cool/J-I-M-B-O." It's all fun until a girl gets a bloody nose or a monster-sixed dude drops his PBR.
The only slow song of the night, "Loaded Gun" shows the Rev's darker side, or at least seemed a paean to the musicians' darker sides: "We had ourselves the sweetest little family / We laughed and sang and had a lot of fun/But I drowned it in a sea of stinkin' whiskey/And now the only little love that's left is a loaded gun/And now the only little love that's left is a loaded gun."
Midway through the set, the Rev and Co. gave the St. Louis audience a Chuck Berry cover, you guessed it, "Johnny B. Goode," with the Rev on bass swapping guitars with Jimbo. "Let Me Teach You How to Eat" is a song about all things food, and the Rev, like Paula Dean off her meds, essentially walks through a culinary must-do list covering grilling, baking and barbecue.
After a short story about their rockabilly roots, Jim introduced Deke Dickerson, Columbia, Mo.'s own rockabilly son, who now circles in the West Coast scene "…where they didn't let it [rockabilly] die."
Deke dropped more Festus, Mo. than Los Angeles, Calif. and played more honky tonk than rockabilly, extending the genre but also confusing it. Is rockabilly rock 'n' roll with hillbilly sensibilities or country with rock influences? Is it an ever evolving genre or a set of splintered sub-cultures?
Whatever the case, rockabilly seems to be many things to a small but devoted group of bands. And as long as Tarantino keeps making movies, and as long as rock 'n' roll nostalgia remains in vogue, there is a future. What that future sounds like though is anyone's guess.