By: Mike Bookey
Getting hit by a pickup truck is a categorically bad thing. That's just a rule of life, physics and motor vehicle safety. However, if it weren't for an absent-minded driver that smashed into a scooter-riding young man earlier this decade, there's a good chance that the planet would never get to know, and fall increasingly in love with, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band. Riding home from work in Anaheim, CA on the Honda Elite scooter that he'd purchased from his grandmother with his high school graduation money, Dustin Apodaca drove into an intersection when the driver of a pickup truck ran a red light and slammed into him so hard that his helmeted head left a sizeable dent in the hood of the truck.
This is the part of the story where you'd expect to hear about how this resilient youngster fought against adversity, relearning to walk or maybe finding musical inspiration in his new lease on life that urged him to reach for rock & roll stardom. Well, this isn't one of those stories. This is about a kid who wanted to have a killer band and just needed something like, say, an insurance settlement to get him properly outfitted. You see, Apodaca wasn't seriously hurt in the accident.
"At first all I had was a guitar, but when I got hit by a truck I was like, 'Yes!' and I got like four keyboards and a nice big box Buckingham amp. I got an accordion, too, and a van - a 1987 Mitsubishi. It was so cool looking; it was like a starship," says Apodaca from his home in Orange County. "If it wasn't for me getting hit by a car, we probably wouldn't be doing this."
Now, Apodaca doesn't only have a new scooter but he's also part of that killer band he was looking to get off the ground. Anaheim's Dusty Rhodes and the River Band isn't a twangy gang of burned-out hippies relegated to cowboy bars, as the name might suggest, but rather a young, genre-smashing six-piece (all of them in their twenties) that takes all the energy of power pop and melts it together with its members' collective love for classic rock, folk, gospel and other shades of American roots music. In late May, the band rolled out its second record, Palace and Stage (released May 17 on Side One Dummy Records), a collection of tightly wound, powerful cuts ranging from pop-rock to folk to all out rockers. The record showcases a band with the crossover ability and musical smarts of an act like The Decemberists, but with the explosive rocking power of (and this is going to seem strange, but it's true) Electric Light Orchestra. Just listen to the first cut on the album, "All One," and that comparison should make instant sense.
"We tried to make it super focused, but obviously we can't do that, so it's still a little different on each track. We tried to bring it in, tighten it up and make it more of a rock album, more straight up POW!" says Apodaca, making just one of the many sound effects he unleashed during the conversation.
Apodaca is almost never serious, speaking in about five different phony voices during our conversations, always employing the "and they were all like... then, I went" mode of storytelling. He's a goddamn pleasure to speak with, even if there are several moments when it's mostly impossible to tell if he's serious... about anything other than playing rock music. On stage, it's similar. He keeps his curly mop of hair bouncing for the entirety of the show, often stepping back from the mic for delightfully obnoxious handclaps. His stage presence might remind some of a seemingly impossible combination of the Crowes' Chris Robinson and a less-mobile James Brown, but he's likely more inspired by whatever could possibly be running through his head at that moment.
Apodaca is one of rock music's rare keyboard-playing frontmen, a position he says (not quite believably) wouldn't be the case if he had more keyboards and would need to stand in a corner of the stage. After a youth spent playing guitar in punk bands, Apodaca decided, while still a teenager, that he needed to be on the keys.
"My parents had just got cable and VH1 Classic had just come out. I was maybe 16 and they had this live show with Rick Wakeman [Yes] freakin' on ice. It was so cool it changed my life. I was like, 'I'm not playing guitar. I'm not playing bass. I'm playing synthesizers and that is it.' And that's because of Rick Wakeman," he says.
And thus Apodaca became the only 16-year-old in 1999 to become an infatuated Yes fan and synthesizer enthusiast.
At an outdoor street festival show in Bend, Oregon this past June, with a cold wind whipping between downtown buildings like summer has turned back to spring, Apodaca is wearing a classically '80s black-and-red windbreaker and sitting backstage sipping a beer he plucked from what appears to be an old bowling bag. We're talking in vague terms about music, and soon Apodaca uses the expression "too cool for night school" to refer to the hipper-than-thou-unless-you-have-the-most-recent-leaked-album ethos that is omnipresent in music clubs these days.
A month later, I ask him about the phrase over the phone because it seems like it might apply to those who don't quite get Dusty Rhodes and the River Band, people who, perhaps rightfully so, are pretty damn confused by this act. He laughs, as is his wont, and tries to clarify himself, saying that he wasn't knocking anyone in particular but rather the whole idea of how buzz-happy music fans can be and how his band has chosen a more built-to-last approach. "In a career, it's better that way because people will keep coming back," says Apodaca. "If you're a fluke or a buzz, people are like, 'They're cool, but, next.'"
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