Howling Diablos: Detroit stars of a million bars
Let's hear it for those good, old, 'dirty, filthy, trash-dumpster blues'
Published: October 19, 2011
Gross remembers meeting Abdallah at an open mic in the mid-'90s, as a "little man on the floor, legs crossed with bongos between his knees, just flailing away and lookin' cool." Gross invited him to join the Diablos at their regular Sunday night gig at the Bear's Den, a now-defunct bar known for its giant, authentic, stuffed polar bear, standing fully erect in the entranceway. Gross encouraged Abdallah to keep practicing and, over time, as the band's popularity began to rise and a long line of fans regularly circled the Bear's Den on Sunday nights, Abdallah became a conga player and band member. He added something special, according to Gross, with backup singing an octave higher than the others and creative English, flavored by his Jordanian accent. In the Howling Diablos' 2005 CD, Car Wash, the liner dedicates the recording to "our fallen brothers" including Abdallah, along with their manager, David Leone.
Soon after Gross and Evans finish laying down "Funky Parade" tracks in the basement, the Howling Diablos meet in a large rehearsal space along Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak. Their regular drummer, Johnny "Bee" Badanjek, can't make their upcoming gig. Bee has his own gig having recently revived his original band, the Rockets, well known for their 1979 hits "Turn up the Radio" and "Oh Well." The Diablos call upon Jerome Day, their previous drummer, to fill in. Gross assumes his old DJ persona, speaking into the microphone about Day — "The history, the man, the myth, the pageantry, the poetry — he's the drummer from Green Bottle, right there." Green Bottle was produced in a time of promotion and high commercial hopes, of a CD release party filling the State Theatre in downtown Detroit to capacity. Later, Day would leave Detroit for L.A., hoping to succeed as a studio musician and instead returning to Detroit, finding work with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (his current gig), switching places, really, with Badanjek, who had played with the original Detroit Wheels in the 1960s.
"Tell me what you need to look at here and we won't fuck around forever," Evans says to Day. As they run through the set list, Day says he's good with all of the tunes from Green Bottle and their later blues work on Car Wash, but he wants to practice "California Sun." Gross had sung lead vocal for the tune when he was the Urbations' drummer. Day would've been but an adolescent when Evans and Gross performed "California Sun" with the Urbations. The '80s is evoked on the back of that band's first album cover, photos of Evans wearing a sleeveless purple shirt with black polka dots, and a curly mullet, and Gross wearing a headband around a full head of hair. By contrast, Gross isn't seen without his fedora when recording or rehearsing today, and Evans' shoulder-length straight hair is a dyed auburn. He no longer wears sleeveless muscle shirts.
"It starts out on the toms, and should sound something like 'the Ramones meets the Cowsills,'" Gross tells Day. The song, "California Sun" had been made popular by the Rivieras in 1964, a kind of surfer tune by rockers in the Midwest. As they near the end, Evans knocks his fist in the air four times, indicating to Day the song's conclusion, a gesture unseen by Gross.
"Bup-bup-bup-bup. You got it!" Gross congratulates Day, somewhat amazed.
"Thanks, T — I knew that..."
"Brilliant! Jerome must be going, 'What happened to the Diablos? Did they turn into —'"
"Is this the Surfaris?" Day interrupts and carries the joke. "What's next? 'Wipe Out?'" He hits the toms in the classic solo segment.
"We throw it in as a cover. People love it," Gross assures him.
They are practicing for an outdoor gig in Ann Arbor. And Gross is correct. The next day children will jump around in front of the stage, a heavy-set, gray-haired man will jerk about somewhat violently, and a couple from a dance studio will gracefully foxtrot. A man seated in the rows of plastic chairs will turn to his wife after the Diablos rap out the last four notes of the song and say with pleasure, "Now, that's an oldie!"
At the rehearsal, Evans continues to create a song list. Day suggests they rehearse "Gone So Long," a blues tune written by Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside, a legend whose music rose to national recognition and appreciation in the '90s. The Diablos' rendition of "Gone So Long" is a reflection of Gross' talents. He produced two R.L. Burnside albums down in Mississippi before Burnside died in the fall of 2005 at the age of 78. The framed artwork of Burnside's A Bothered Mind CD, a simple image of the old, disheveled bluesman on a country road, hangs in Gross' basement recording studio. The Diablos don't typically play cover tunes, but the Burnside song seems an homage to the past, and authentic in terms of the band's sensibility. They have a keen sense of their place on the musical arc.
Gross has a reverence and an awareness of the legacy of this city and some of the great acts with his own blues history dating back to the early '60s when he played drums for John Lee Hooker, as well as Big Walter Horton, Otis Rush, Eddie Taylor and many other greats.
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