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Americana bad-ass: (l-r) Persico, Morris, Lipscomb, Morse, Winchester.

photo: Chris Shields

Once and Future Kings
By Erik Hage

Former members of CPK return to the alt-country throne as the Sidewinders, a ·bar band· playing Americana music for the love of it

his is a bar band·with a pedigree. I·m with them in a rented space off Central Avenue. As far as rehearsal rooms go, it·s fairly prototypical: cramped, with shoddy equipment, funky green carpet sprawled across the floor and fluorescent lights kicking out a stark Kremlin glare. There·s some cologne and beer in the air too.

Down where I·m sitting (on the floor, back against the wall), I get the full lay of the land: dirty carpet, boot toe on guitar pedal, green beer bottles and all.

The predominant mode here is country music in bold tones, with a gritty rock feel. As they work their way through a song, guitarist Larry Winchester·s twang and crunch cuts against pedal-steel man Rick Morse·s flashing alchemy of notes.

These two have shared leads for years, and their playing speaks to that synergy: Winchester, with shirttails out and sleeves rolled to the elbow, juts his elbow upward, bending notes, wrenching the guts from the red SG. Morse sits zenlike before his steel, working pedals, hands registering casual, indecipherable movements.

He and Winchester share time and space, dual peals of twang curling at each other, challenging, often getting wound up together in an inseparable tangle of notes.

Group founder George Lipscomb, perched behind the drum kit wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt and a baseball cap with a beaver on it, is rock-solid and deeply seasoned from his numerous decades in the Albany scene (from his punk roots onward). Mike Persico holds down a corner of the room on five-string bass while Charlie Morris, wearing an acoustic, sings across the fray in a Steve Earle-like tomcat snarl.

The goal was to be a bar band, but these guys aren·t your garden-variety group of honky-tonkers. The set list reads like a study in offbeat, quality, insider Americana. There·s Johnny Cash, sure, and there·s Buck Owens too. And there·s some Wilco and Steve Earle for the discerning modernists.

But there·s also the acidic ·Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,· by outsider Texan hipster Ray Wylie Hubbard, and ·My Drinking Days are Over,· by cultish, relative youngster of Americana, Slaid Cleaves. The Sidewinders have dug deep and dug richly for their covers·it·s like a listening list for a Ph.D. in quality Americana.

·You could call it ·American Music,· · Lipscomb says. ·Because you have the traditional stuff there, you have some roots rock there and you have the alternative-country element.· He has been the driving force behind the group, which he founded last summer. ·This thing was in my head after Coal Palace [Kings]. . . . The idea was just to get together without a lot of . . . conditions, you know?

Lipscomb, Morse and Winchester were together in the late, lamented, local alt- country group Coal Palace Kings for a few years. ·I could have called this band the Bastard Sons of the Coal Palace Kings,· laughs Lipscomb.

With CPK, the three toured the United States and got a bit of recognition beyond the Capital Region borders. In fact, it often seems like I·m having the same conversation about country music with these guys year after year: I·ve written pieces about them for two different publications. (There·s a pattern to our exchanges: We get wrapped up in chatting about songs and artists we love, crack a few jokes, and invariably Winchester and I end up in a corner pondering the schematics of his Gibson, an instrument rarely used for this kind of music·but one from which he wrenches some dead-right sturm and twang.)

Initially, the three former colleagues had no intention of picking up together again. Lipscomb got the other two members, Persico and Morris, on board early, but he remembers, ·We had a guitar player·a young kid·and it just didn·t work out. It was his first band and all.·

Morse came on board soon after, and he was hoping they·d land a guitarist who had a feel for sharing the stage with a pedal steel. ·With Larry, I always think of him as a steel player [rather than a guitarist],· says Morse.

·At the time Larry was pretty busy,· Lipscomb frets. But both he and Morse knew Winchester was the ideal player for the task. ·I didn·t push it, but in the back of my head I said, ·I·ll give him a little time.· And pretty much Larry came around.·

Morse recalls, ·He said he·d do one gig and see what it sounded like.·

·Sons of bitches!· laughs Winchester in his own defense. ·I·m like, ·What·s the scoop on this? A bunch of guys that don·t have the common sense to stop playing?··

So what·s different for the three this time around? ·Everybody has their say here,· Lipscomb claims. ·It·s everybody·s band.· The aspirations are different as well. ·I think ·bar band· is really it,· Winchester says. ·All I wanted to do was play guitar again. I missed playing guitar.·

·And it·s not like a novelty,· shoots Lipscomb. ·This is a fucking real band. It·s a good band. And it·s fun.·

·This is the kind of band I·d like to think you·d see in a bar scene in a movie,· he cracks. ·All we need is some barbed wire.·

·I don·t think you·ll find anyone else doing what we·re doing,· adds Morse, pointing to the group·s way-beyond-the-mainstream repertoire, which Lipscomb sums up with a smattering of aphorisms: ·Heartfelt, outlaw country. Hell-bent rock & roll. Good times.·

Winchester points out, ·Some of the best times we·ve ever had in the past was playing the Garden Grill or Artie·s or something. You play these small local bars and you get a different crowd of people.· Morris agrees: ·I·ve never had so many people sing the words back to me for songs I figured no one would know anyway. I figured five people would know these songs, and four of them are in the audience.· He laughs, ·Granted, it·s a sausage party. But they·re really into it.·

As for the group name, Lipscomb says simply, ·I like Westerns and Cowboy movies·Gene Autry, John Wayne, all that. And if you watch cowboy movies, the sidewinder always comes up in the script.· He·s more than aware of the ·80s alternative group of the same name (from Arizona), but, he edgily points out, ·Until we get some legal documentation in the mail, it·s the Sidewinders.·

The Sidewinders will perform at the Ale House (680 River St., Troy) on May 20 at 9 PM.

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