Rat Race

 

Donald Lovell, a sturdy 49-year-old asbestos-removal specialist with a silver ponytail and a ready grin, has played blues around town over the past decade and a half, since relocating to Kansas City from western Oklahoma. About two years ago, he met fellow fortysomethings Don Hockensmith and Lonnie Kilgore and started kicking out ZZ Top and Rolling Stones tunes in a basement. Eventually they formed an easygoing covers band; more recently, the group started writing some originals in the classic-rock vein and added a second guitarist.

And that’s Schwamp Rat‘s surface story, a tale familiar to anyone with friends or family members who grew up during rock’s golden age and refuse to “act their age” by surrendering their beloved strings and sticks. But beneath this commonplace tale lurks one of the area’s most intriguing Spinal Tap sagas, an inspirational yarn starring a cast of characters that addresses its trials and tribulations with oblivious good humor.

Let’s start with the names: This isn’t really just two Dons and a Lon. Bassist/vocalist Hockensmith goes by “Wolfie,” a reference to his role as the lead howler in the defunct band Lone Wolf. Schwamp Rat’s moniker was inspired by Kilgore’s mysterious nickname, “Schwampy.” (“Schwamp is the sound the rats’ tails make when they slap the mud,” Lovell offers; Schwampy’s drum-taps make a similar ruckus.) Lovell owes his obscure handle, “Rusty Buckets,” to “a girlfriend from years ago.”

A hippie at heart, Buckets lives at Armadillo Acres North, where he’s surrounded by an enormous organic garden. He still talks the talk (“If you keep your karma good and you treat people well, good things will happen for you. I try to do something nice for someone every day. It comes down to people treating each other like brothers”), but he leaves the Grateful Dead covers to the similarly named Schwag.

The group’s fourth member, 42-year-old Steve Balissi, hails from Kecskemét, Hungary. He currently answers (in a thick accent) to “Fast Fingers,” an appropriate stopgap solution that Buckets nevertheless implies is too pragmatic to have any real character. But while the group hasn’t yet dubbed “the crazy Hungarian” with a lasting title, it has somehow found a way to fit his searing, technically proficient solos into its meat-and-potatoes songs. It’s like Steve Vai sitting in with Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, infusing old-time rock and roll with a freakish glimpse of a future in which evolution bestows extra appendages on gifted guitarists, allowing them to operate with previously inhuman precision.

To haze Balissi, Schwamp Rat’s original members stranded him in a winding musical labyrinth called “Back Door to Budapest.” “It was a practical joke,” Buckets says of the first tune penned with Balissi in mind. “Our whole goal was to screw him up and hold him back, but it just made him play better.” The track opens with a trembling, yowling, mind-blowingly complex showing-off-in-the-guitar-store solo before merging into a kindergarten-simple groove. Then Balissi starts working his magic on top of the basic backdrops without sounding out of place, an accomplishment that’s like painting a masterpiece on the side-door of a beat-up van while it putters down the street at three miles an hour.

Buckets and Wolfie are the band’s main songwriters, responsible for such time-capsule-escapees as “On Speed,” a ’70s-sounding ode to fast-driving teenage girls, and “Maintenance Man,” a Steely Dan-dy chill pill. Schwamp Rat still pads its sets with covers from Roy Orbison, Pink Floyd and Creedence Clearwater Revival, along with some bluesier fare. “We wouldn’t be embarrassed to show up at any blues festival and rock out,” Buckets claims.

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Actually, Schwamp Rat wouldn’t be embarrassed to show up anywhere to rock out. The group has played scooter-store parking lots, New Year’s Eve “sober-up breakfast events,” and, if all goes well, it will entertain the Oklahoma City astronomical society this spring. “They have a crop-circle observation site on a farm, and they have big ‘star parties’ with their telescopes and stuff,” Buckets explains. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Musicians with bigger egos — the type who prefer to be the only stars under observation — might not agree with that assessment, but Schwamp Rat has never met a gig it didn’t like. The group’s regular haunts include P.J.’s, the Shawnee Mission Parkway establishment at which Schwamp Rat plays Friday, February 1, and Saturday, February 2; Mojo’s, a Lee’s Summit hangout; and the River Market Microbrewery, where it spreads the old-school cheer with like-minded (and similarly unappetizingly named) acts such as Snot Rockets. As for the higher-profile rock venues, Schwamp Rat hasn’t yet played Nieners, the self-proclaimed “true home” of the genre. Buckets frets, “Nieners attracts a much younger crowd than what would be interested in us.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine any club refusing to book these guys, given their owner-friendly policies. “We’ve been offered free drinks, and we turn them down,” Buckets says. “We tell them, ‘We don’t drink when we’re at work, because the way we look at it, we’re working for you, and you wouldn’t let your employees drink on the job.’ I’ve seen young bands that were too drunk to play, and they should be ashamed of themselves for being out in public in that condition. Between the attitudes and slovenly lifestyle, they’re not the type of kids I’d like my kids around, that’s for damn sure. We’re all old stoners from way back, but we’ve got our shit together now.”

Furthermore, Schwamp Rat prides itself on maintaining tasteful volume and tone, qualities that should endear it to noise-conscious venues such as Blayney’s. “If you can’t deal with adversity, don’t gig,” lectures Buckets, who always totes a tool box and spare gear to Schwamp Rat gigs. “Some bands throw temper tantrums when things break down, and it’s hopeless to be that way. We can handle our own sound. We know how to do the things that make club owners happy.”

Well, almost all the things. Schwamp Rat still hasn’t found a way to guarantee a full house, a fact that was driven home when it failed to pack P.J.’s for its New Year’s Eve gig. And occasionally, the band’s pre-PC sensibilities clash with current standards, as when Mojo’s forced the group to remove a promotional poster that featured a scantily clad woman. This perplexed Buckets, as did the group’s ill-fated bill with a DJ on Halloween night. “DJs can play loud music with a lot of filth in the lyrics, and everyone seems to think that’s alright, but if we say the word ‘tits’ in a song lyric, we get crap about it,” Buckets gripes, expressing genuine confusion. “We had a bunch of our bike people show up on Halloween, and they heard the DJ playing inside, and they all got right back on their scooters and left.”

Ah yes, the “bike people.” Schwamp Rat caters largely to a Harley-straddling fanbase, one that comes to cheer the group at revved-up venues such as Hog Wild and Frankie D’s. “They’re not the kind of crowd that runs out and dances, but they sit back and appreciate your music,” Buckets explains. The prospect of a biker presence might conjure frightful visions of Altamont and Pee Wee Herman table-dancing to “Tequila,” but Buckets assures the timid that this isn’t that type of crowd. “When I lived in California, I was around a lot of biker types, heavy-duty guys. With the Harley rider these days, the reason his wife’s Lexus and his Ford Excursion are parked in the driveway of their fine suburban home is because the garage is full of Harleys. The Harley rider of today is a different animal. These people have a lot of money in their scoots.”

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Schwamp Rat isn’t putting any money in Buckets’ scoot, but he has no regrets. “We’ve played out a lot in this town and haven’t made a penny for doing it,” he admits. “But there’s the old adage: The show must go on.” Occasionally, some fast-talker tries to sell Schwamp Rat on a record-label contract or an overseas tour, and in this situation, Buckets relies on a lesser-known adage: “Until I’m actually standing in front of the room full of drunks, I don’t believe it.”

Besides, even if Buckets never gets his fantasy gig (an opening slot for moe at Liberty Hall), he’s more than comfortable with his lot: playing vintage gear, in tune, in front of class-act fans that happen to take a lot of pride in their paint jobs. “After a while, I started to realize that playing in a garage band wasn’t enough,” Buckets says. “And I’m living the dream right now. If anything happened to me, I’d be fully satisfied with my life. Every show that we do, someone says, ‘You guys remind me of people we used to party with years ago,’ and to me, that’s a sure sign of success. Very few musicians ever get to have that much fun.”

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