Frontman Jim Heath of Reverend Horton Heat experienced an epiphany while playing a private party about six months ago.
“There were all these young people there, and this young girl came up to me ... and I say young, she was in her late teens or early 20s ... and she said ‘You guys are going to bring back rock ‘n’ roll,’” he says during a telephone interview.
Who knows whether the young lady was familiar with the catalogs of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard, but Heath says her observation was right on point.
“I said ‘Well, that’s the goal. That’s what I’m thinking here.’ I started thinking about a particular type of rock ‘n’ roll. I have a tight idea of what rock ‘n’ roll is, and I want to bring it back. To me, rock ‘n’ roll is that straight eight.”
Driving eighth-notes are a recognizable trademark of rock. The move toward straight eighths didn’t originate with drummers, but with instrumentalists, most notably piano player Little Richard and guitar players Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
“We can play rockabilly, we can play country, we can play our old stuff and whatever,” Heath says. “It’s fine, but I’m about bringing those straight rock ‘n’ roll rhythms back. I’m influenced a lot in my playing by piano players, Chuck Berry with Johnnie Johnson pounding out straight eights, or Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. That kind of feel.”
Heath and Reverend Horton Heat will perform its trademark mix of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country and surf rock Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Historic Ashland Armory, 208 Oak St. Big Sandy, Voodoo Glow Skulls and Delta Bombers open the show. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at Magic Man in Medford, Music Coop in Ashland, or at liveatthearmory.com. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Heath and Reverend Horton Heat’s new album, “Whole New Life” released in late November on Victory Records, fits the strict definition of rock ‘n’ roll that Heath’s adhered to since he formed Reverend Horton Heat in the late ’80s.
This is the band’s second album for Victory Records. The first, 2014’s “Rev,” was the band’s highest charting, most consistent selling record.
With Heath on guitars and vocals, Jimbo Wallace on upright bass, Matt Jordan on piano and Arjuna Contreras on drums, the group recorded 11 songs in the vien of music’s original rock ’n’ rollers.
It’s not the only thing that makes “Whole New Life” stand out in Reverend Horton Heat’s catalog of 12 albums. The album marks a new era for the band itself: After being a trio for nearly all of its 30-plus career, the group is now a quartet, with Jordan on piano and organ.
There’s also a new drummer: RJ Contreras stepped in for Scott Churilla — who left the band after 16 years — just before the group was ready to record at Modern Electric in its home base of Dallas.
“In about 10 day’s notice, RJ learned all of these songs,” Heath says. “We went in the studio, rehearsed them for awhile and recorded the album. We did it in just two days. It was crazy because we were out of time. We had to do it or else postpone the album for like two years.”
With the basic rhythm section recorded, Heath re-recorded some of his guitar parts and vocals at his own Dallas studio, had Jordan add his piano parts and added miscellaneous parts and backing vocals to create the finished tracks.
The quality of “Whole New Life” is impressive considering it had to be recorded under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Contreras is making his presence heard with his command of rhythmic styles and an ability to put a bit more swing into the Reverend Horton Heat sound. But it’s Jordan, whose piano is the most noticeable new ingredient in the music, that helps the band achieve more of the early rock ’n’ roll sound Heath wants to emphasize going forward.
Heath points to the title song, along with “Wonky,” “Perfect” and “Got It In My Pocket” as prime examples of songs from “Whole New Life” that embody the early sound. The songs feature Heath’s guitar work (especially on the latter pair of tunes), but are aided greatly by Jordan’s driving piano lines and the high-octane tempos laid down by Contreras.
“Whole New Life,” though, is not a one-note album by any means. “Tchoupitoulas Street” is a rare — for Reverend Horton Heat — foray into New Orleans R&B. There’s a bluesy, barrelhouse feel to “Hog Tyin’ Woman,” a tune that continues Heath’s tradition of writing the occasional off-the-wall funny song. The ballad “Don’t Let Go Of Me” is one of the few songs that downshifts in tempo, mixing rock and hints of classic R&B over a measured beat. The song also gives Heath the opportunity to showcase his vocal range as he croons his way through the song’s strong melody.
“I’ve been working really hard on my voice,” Heath says. “I should have done it before. I’m singing a little bit higher on this album, and I’m showing a little bit more range.”
Heath also brings a bit of a different tone to “Whole New Life” as a lyricist.
“It’s by far the most positive album I’ve ever written lyrically,” he says. “Most of my stuff is kind of dark and blue, but this one has some positive ideas going on.”
Heath likes what he hears so far from new four-man lineup. He’d thought of adding piano at points in the past, but could never find a keyboard player available for the band’s extensive tours, he says.
“I really do love Matt,” Heath says. “He’s positive, and he practices incredibly hard. That’s been great. And our new drummer, RJ, is great. He came in with his own style, some of that jazz and Latin stuff in there, and stabilized the whole thing. It’s really cool, man.”
The new material is going down well with fans, and the addition of keys allows the group to put a fresh spin on some of its older songs, he adds.
“We’ve got Matt playing on pretty much the whole set,” Heath says. “I let him shine. On other songs, I say ‘Man, it’s probably best if you just do a chord pad.’ We’ve been throwing his solos in on some of our old songs. It sounds killer.”