Dusty Rhodes: Winning You Over

By: Mike Bookey

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band by Brent Murrell
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.

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band from myspace.com
"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.

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band from myspace.com
"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.'"

Continue reading for more on Dusty Rhodes and the River Band...

 
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. If it wasn't for me getting hit by a car, we probably wouldn't be doing this.

-Dustin Apodaca

 
Photo by: Matt Grayson

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band
By Jake Krolick
The band's debut, First You Live, was a solid release, even if it was even more diverse than Palace and Stage, including a couple straight-up country songs. But where the band has earned its credibility over the past five years has been on stage, where Apodaca serves as a gyrating focal point, though several other members take lead vocal duties and also show off skills of their own. Guitarists Kyle Divine and Edson Choi both throw impressive licks, and also take the lead vocal duties from time to time as Andrea Babinski (her brother Brad Babinski plays bass) provides the lone female voice as well as violin and mandolin, adding another layer to an already thick mix anchored by drummer Eric Chirco.

At the show in Bend, the band kicked off with a medley of cuts from Palace and Stage then peppered in a few rootsier, almost honky-tonk numbers from First You Live. Then, they do something that pretty much sums up this band – they launch into a cover of "The Weight" by The Band, trading verses between band members, all of them returning to shout out the chorus with the crowd joining in. Next, they cruise through a string of more pop-rock influenced tunes, yet the people who've flocked to the stage during "The Weight" don't leave and are still dancing along. This is typical for Dusty Rhodes, a band that has opened for Flogging Molly AND Jonny Lang, as well as Blind Melon and Los Lobos, and can also headline a street festival like this or fit in perfectly at jammy gatherings like Wakarusa and High Sierra, as they did this summer, gaining across-the-board positive reviews (read JamBase's review of Dusty Rhodes at HSMF here).

Dustin Apodaca by Max Knies
Kyle Divine, the slender guitarist who is wearing a mustache, oversized glasses and a hoodie bearing the name of label mate Gogol Bordello when we meet, says that the band's accessibility has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, they sometimes fall by the wayside without a genre to nestle into, but conversely, they can pretty much play anywhere and be accepted. It's a weird place to be in, and Divine realizes that.

"We've always just been about playing anywhere, anytime for whatever crowd because we know we can win them over wherever we are," says Divine, "I think it's because we have so many influences of our own that we appreciate all kinds of music."

Neither Divine nor Apodaca is a fan of the band's name, which has provided them with some strange experiences, including but hardly limited to playing with cowboy band openers and also having their lead singer mistakenly introduced as "Dusty Rhodes," which, of course, isn't his real name. The band's genesis came after Apodaca and Divine met when Apodaca was taking a community college screen-printing class with Divine's roommate. "This is where brilliant minds come together, in screen-printing class at a community college," Apodaca says of the experience, pointing out that Divine was his scholastic superior, enrolled at Cal State Fullerton at the time. They originally wanted to name the band Dusty Rhodes and the Santa Ana River Band, in honor of both the brand name of Dustin's old electric piano and the concrete sludge canal near their hometown, but decided it was too long. Never fans of the name, the band actually wanted to change their name with the release of Palace and Stage, which, for obvious reasons, wasn't realistic.

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band by Brent Murrell
"We did want to change it and we still do. But, when you're 19 you make up ridiculous names, you know, so we just kind of stuck with it," says Apodaca, who in the band's earlier days would claim his real name to be Dusty Rhodes but now says he's planning on going by Frances, his middle name, to alleviate the confusion.

As this name debate illustrates, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band is, in a way, one of the first long-term specimens of the current DIY era in music. As Apodaca puts it, they started doing things the way they wanted to do them, playing whatever music felt right, and there was really no one there to tell them to stop, so they didn't and they haven't. They haven't concerned themselves much with fitting into any given genre or meshing particularly well with any concert bill or festival lineup. But the funny thing is in being so flagrantly autonomous they have created a massively accessible brand of music with an almost confusingly broad appeal.

"Indie rock, in general, is so broad and you can do whatever you want. That's what we're going to do, and no one has really told us 'no' yet. The label hasn't told us 'no;' they've let us do whatever we want. It's almost 2010. It's about time we just get on with making music," says Apodaca, "who cares what it sounds like or what genre it's supposed to be. If it's cool, then it's cool, and if you like making music like that then just do it. If you're touring with no label or no booking agent, just do whatever you want, and that's how we started this band. Again, man, it's almost 2010. Get over the whole genre thing."

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band has been forced to cancel their current East Coast tour because bass player Brad Babinski is ill with mono and shingles.

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