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Hawkins fares to catch fire or inspire

Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., Oct. 29, 1998

By Jon Johnson

SOMERVILLE - The Dale Hawkins show was a highly anticipated one; the first evening of a rockabilly one-two punch finishing up with Sleepy LaBeef's show the following night.

Johnny D's has been booking one or two monthly rockabilly shows on a regular basis for a while now and the culture clash between working class 20- and 30-something rockabillies and Somerville's more affluent Birkenstock-wearing, Volvo-driving, NPR-listening denizens is usually an interesting event to watch unfold.

And as great as it would be to say that Hawkins - best known for his 1957 hit "Susie Q" - still deserved his '50's rep as being one of the wildest performers around, it just wasn't the case.

This was simply one of those shows that's difficult to put a good face on. This was a tragic case of Rockabilly As Cabaret.

Rather than being backed up by a band that understood and cared about his material, Hawkins' four-piece band reminded one of nothing else so much as a mid-'70's rust belt bar band - not bad so much as just dull and generally lacking in anything resembling verve or fire.

What's really sad is that Hawkins' vocals actually weren't bad. It's well worth speculating about how he would have sounded had he been backed by a band that was passionate about his music. Considering that the cream of Boston's rockabilly musicians were in the audience, there would have been no shortage of volunteers.

Unfortunately, this wasn't going to happen. After letting his band play two numbers without him (including an interminable blues jam that made Robert Cray sound like Howlin' Wolf), Hawkins took the stage around 10:45. Dressed in a turtleneck, slacks, and a blazer, he didn't exactly look the part of the rockabilly pioneer that many in the crowd had been expecting, leading one wag to comment, "Hey, Dale - Robert Goulet called, and he wants his clothes back when you're done with them."

Hawkins' set consisted mainly of blues numbers, a few rockers and a few covers that left the crowd - quite frankly - in stunned befuddlement; particularly after an utterly baffling rendition of Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," followed by a bluesy take on Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting For a Train."

It's indicative of the crowd's reaction to the set that there was no clamoring for an encore after Hawkins and band finished up with "Susie Q" (one of the evening's few truly rocking moments) around midnight, by which time the crowd had already thinned out considerably.

Local boys the Speed Devils - playing only their second show with their new drummer - fared far better, turning in a strong set mainly consisting of numbers from their album, as well as a few covers including "Booze Party" and Del Reeves' trucker anthem, "Looking at the World Through a Windshield."

Hawkins would have done well to have given his band the night off and had the Speed Devils back him up for the evening.

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