ALL FIRED UP: The Dempseys will rockabilly your world.
After waiting tables at Barley’s Taproom throughout college, I’ve got a bone to pick with the Dempseys, a psycho-billy ensemble that’s played there repeatedly over the years. The energetic trio is a waiter’s worst nightmare, tending to pack out venues with loads of people who are interested in only two things: dancing and drinking PBR. We’d end up cocktailing all night, chasing around transient revelers, pausing only to make change or discreetly chug a can of suds when the person who ordered it had wandered into the Bermuda Triangle of dancefloors.
Relating the dilemma to Brad Birkedahl, the Dempseys’ co-frontman and guitarist, elicits the barely-sympathetic comment, “But you made some money right?” Fair enough.
But besides a slight buzz and a back pocket bulging with singles at the end of the night, the other perk of working a Dempseys show was the dependably electrifying performance. All three members have a strange hyper-elasticity in their faces that allows them to contort into cartoon characters on stage. Bassist Joe Fick plucks away at his upright, looking vaguely maniacal. Birkedahl hugs his guitar in tight, spitting out the words like the microphone’s angered him in some way. Likewise, drummer Ron Perrone grins a seedy grin as he bangs away on his glittery kit. “We really feed off the crowd,” says Birkedahl on how the boys muster such energy. “But even if there’s no crowd, we still get into it. We’re not like that offstage though. We do drink lots of coffee, so maybe that’s part of it.”
And though they take bits from the milder genres of Dixieland, blues, jazz and honky-tonk, the Dempseys crank the tempo and manage to create a wicked sound that’s anything but sedate. “It derives from rockabilly, but we also mix in other styles, so it’s kind-of this melting pot,” says Birkedahl. “Fans have told us it’s rockabilly on speed.”
Originally from Tacoma, Wash., the three members of the Dempseys got together in high school, shortly afterwards moving to Memphis when an Elvis-themed restaurant recruited them to play as its house band in 1998. After fulfilling a year contract with the nightspot, the Dempseys began playing at different venues throughout the city, soaking up its rich history as the incubator of Delta blues and early rock ’n’ roll.
Though still not affiliated with a label, the Dempseys met critical success with the release of its debut album, Drinkin’ Songs For Your Grandparents , in 2001. And the title of its latest album, Radio Friendly Hits for your DJ to Play , might suggest the band’s ready for more notoriety. “We’re not out looking for a label, but if something came along that allowed us artistic freedom, we’d consider it,” says Birkedahl. “But if someone says, ’How ’bout you guys put on cowboy hats and do the Tim McGraw thing,’ that would be a different story.”
The band got some national exposure recently, scoring a part in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line . “They were going to be filming in Memphis, and we thought, ‘Well, it’s rockabilly, Sun Records, and all of that. We’re a natural fit.’ We were pushing to be Elvis’ band, and that’s exactly what happened,” says Birkedahl.
Though only in the film for a minute or so, Birkedahl says they did a lot of sitting around on set. “Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix were really nice,” he recalls. “They weren’t musicians, of course, so they looked up to us. And we didn’t know how to act, so we learned from them, too.”
Anyone who’s seen the Dempseys in concert might beg to differ on the claim that its members aren’t actors. Its live shows are as visually stimulating as some stage productions. Just when the sweat starts flying and the energy seems to climax, Fick will jump from the stage and up onto the bar with his bass in tow, impressing the crowd with his lemur-esque agility. Other times, Birkedahl will drop his guitar and join Fick on his upright bass, one balancing on the instrument’s lower curves. “I don’t know when we started doing that, but the response from the crowd was such that we knew we had to do it every night,” says Birkedahl.
It may be hard to believe from the looks of them, but even the members of the Dempseys get tired sometimes. “We’re not robots,” admits Birkedahl. “But even on those nights when you’re tired, you just start playing and, I don’t know, the music just takes over.”
What: The Dempseys When: Thursday, Dec. 8, 10 p.m. Where: Barley’s Taproom How much: $5