Revival signs

JD McPherson ushers in a welcome return to rock'n'roll roots

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Old school, JD McPherson.
PHOTO BY SAMANTHA FRANKLIN

emilysavage@sfbg.com

MUSIC A few musicians with slick hair and black-frame glasses are seen setting up their equipment in Chicago's Hi-Style Studio: amps, a mustard Telecaster, glittering gold drums, a huge stand-up bass, and vintage condenser microphones. What year is this?

The drum hits crack and the bass strings ripple with heavy plucks. The finger-snapping beat is unavoidable, almost cloying in its blitheness. Potent vocals reminiscent of Little Richard suddenly overpower it all. It's Broken Arrow, Oklahoma's JD McPherson — singing so hard a craggy vein in his otherwise smooth forehead bulges — in the video for the single that has brought him this far: "North Side Gal."

It's due to be inescapable this summer. "The Chicago Cubs have actually been playing that song at the stadium during games," McPherson says during a phone call from his car, where the singer-songwriter-occasional vegetarian is waiting on an order of red pepper tofu. "It's really exciting. There's really no other team I'd rather have that song associated with. It's the ultimate old ballpark, underdog team."

Like contemporaries Nick Waterhouse (who, coincidentally, is also playing San Francisco this week, and un-coincidentally is also profiled in this issue) and Nick Curran and the Lowlifes, McPherson is tackling the invigorating rock'n'roll power and bluesy vocals of early R&B and 1950s rock, exploring retro record-making processes,while nonchalantly dressing the part.

It's another revival, likely to sell well across the mainstream in the Heartland, but also appeal to the underground listeners throughout rockabilly pockets. Though this is beyond classic rockabilly's precise replications of the past, past kitsch and overwhelming aesthetics. These band leaders with undeniable guitar skills and a very modern drive have something that can only be described, apologetically, as star power. Out of the smoky clubs and into the mind's eye.

And while rockin' McPherson may have the sound, the side-parted hair, and the analog recording process back-story like the others in this current resurgence, his own background is fairly different; if the more soulful California boy Waterhouse is Rat Pack wool suits, McPherson is dusty rolled denim.

McPherson was raised on a cattle farm in Buffalo Valley, Southeast Oklahoma — dutifully feeding the cows before school — but later fell into a nearby punk scene, and met his wife (and mother to his two young daughters) at a new wave-goth club night in Tulsa; wearing a Smiths shirt herself, she approached him to say,"You look like a Smiths fan." She's now his biggest supporter, sitting patiently while he runs by new guitar parts or song lyrics. She's also the original "North Side Gal."

But before all that, before his interest in punk and new-wave, before the wife and kids, and long before the release of his modern reinterpretation of early rock'n'roll record, Signs and Signifiers, he was just a 13-year-old kid in the Midwest learning to play the guitar.

His much older brothers showed him their '70s-era Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, and Jimi Hendrix records. He grew obsessed with Led Zeppelin then Van Halen, and later, Nirvana, which led to searches for punk origins records by the Stooges and the Ramones. As a late teen, he discovered early rock'n'roll, the backbeat to all those spinning vinyl dreams.

"I found the Decca recordings of Buddy Holly, and that sort of seemed to marry the exuberance of the Ramones, with the country Arcadian aesthetic that I was growing up around. It made sense...and it got me."

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