Bad Livers singer-banjoist-guitarist Danny Barnes and tuba player-upright bassist Mark Rubin must have been a pair of those smart, weird kids you sometimes find in small southern towns listening to punk records and wisecracking--the ones voted Most Likely to Move to the Big City in the usual indie-rock parable. But these kids stayed around Austin, Texas, and honed their traditional chops, filing Bill Monroe right next to the Minutemen in their record collections and writing classic songs skewed by postpunk wit. Their first single--a blazing bluegrass rendering of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life"--would have branded them a novelty act if there weren't substance beneath the shtick; their first two albums, Delusions of Banjer and Horses in the Mines (1992 and 1994, both on the roots-punk imprint Quarterstick), featured an eclectic mix of sounds that were based in bluegrass but stretched out into Cajun, polka, gospel, and vaudeville. "Shit Creek" and "Turpentine Willie" showed a self-deprecating but righteous hillbilly humor that intersected punk aesthetics (cf Black Flag's Damaged) at a deadly angle. With their versatility and rogue notions of authenticity, they're the closest thing we've got to an American Pogues. Their latest, Hogs on the Highway, is on the North Carolina-based bluegrass label Sugar Hill, which indicates that the Bad Livers are seeking greater acceptance in traditional circles. If the judgments are based on music alone, they shouldn't have any problems--their "My Old Man" and the old-time fiddler's-convention standard "Cluck Old Hen" could hold their own at anybody's hoedown. What traditionalists will make of "Falling Down the Stairs Again (With a Pistol in My Hand)," which sounds like a tidbit from Tom Waits's lost prog-rock phase, is still an open question, but the Bad Livers' sincere love for traditional music and their easy comfort with it is plain--they're no musicologist's reconstruction. It remains to be seen how they'll fare without fiery fiddler-accordionist Ralph White III, but from what I hear his replacement, Bob Grant, is hot stuff too. Thursday, March 6, 9 PM, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; 773-525-6620. MONICA KENDRICK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bad Livers photo.