The League Bowlers Some Balls Deluxe Release Party December 23 at Big Room Bar
Some of the best music anywhere, as soon as it combusts, vanishes into a haze of evaporating whiskey and stories. Columbus has a slew of these. One of my favorite examples, The League Bowlers, are reissuing their one overlooked album Some Balls almost 15 years after its debut with five new tracks. I met with singer-guitarist Colin Gawel and bassist Dan Cochran to talk about the impetus for putting this out now.
League Bowlers started as an off-shoot of Watershed near the end of their major label days, with the original three members augmented by Paul Beltz on bass. Touring with Dash Rip Rock and Terry Anderson from the Georgia Satellites gave them the impetus for a rootsy side project; a way to blow off steam. Gawel joked, “We told people we were a Georgia Satellites tribute band. We started so young we never had a band people wouldn’t judge. Watershed, Big Back 40, people judge you. You walk in as the League Bowlers, people like you. This was having fun with it, playing ‘bar’ bars, not clubs on the scene. Everybody else got kind of tired of it.”
But Colin Gawel wasn’t done with the League Bowlers yet. Bassist Dan Cochran said, “I was in off the road and stopped in the Library Bar. There was a band playing. I was on the far side and the songs they were doing… I’d been touring, watching bands every night, but I was like ‘Who the fuck is this?’ I come over to that side and it’s the guys from Watershed with Andy Harrison on lap steel. A few months later I was back on the road and saw Colin in a bar. I walked up and said, ‘I saw that band you’re in and if you ever need a bass player…’ He called me three or four years later and I didn’t hesitate. I hadn’t opened my guitar case in two years since [major label signees] Big Back 40 broke up. It broke my heart. I couldn’t play. I started playing bass again, woodshedding. Just going to my room with my lamp and a tape deck.”
The first person Gawel recruited for this ultimate version of the band was Jim Johnson, one of Willie Phoenix’s foils and a gold standard for Charlie Watts-style drumming in town. Gawel said, “I was a Willie Phoenix fan. And when [Watershed] were young, we’d ask his advice on recording, on what made records sound certain ways. He put together a benefit with Watershed, Greenhorn, and Feversmile (the latter also featuring Cochran). And Jim suggested Mike who he played alongside with Willie and with The Retreads.” Cochran said, “That first song at that first rehearsal was Tom Petty’s ‘I Need to Know.’ I’d never met Mike Parks. I’d worked with Jim Johnson but didn’t know him that well. And it was immediate.”
Once that chemistry was in place, Gawel said, “It was fun. It was our social hour. We did whatever songs we wanted. You might leave the band because of the drinking.” Cochran finishes the thought, “But you’ll never get kicked out for it.” Gawel expanded, “There was an intergenerational thing. Jim and Mike came from the school of ‘We’re bar band side guys. We do three 45 minute sets a night, that guy’s the boss.’ Dan and I were more,” Cochran interjects, “We’re a showcase act.” Gawel laughs and agrees, “We’ll play whatever we want when want and they’re gonna have us back because we’re selling beer. That was our mentality.”
Gawel said, “We knocked out the record in four weeks [scheduled around Watershed] in Rick Kinsinger’s (later of Gawel’s band The Lonely Bones) basement. Joe Viers mixed it in 6 hours.” Columbus had an overflowing scene of Americana/alt.country (whatever that is) bands and the League Bowlers took hits for the light-hearted, tossed-off quality of presentation. But I saw a lot of bowling shirts worn with less conceptual panache and flair at a lot of dour, self-important shows. And listening to Some Balls again, it holds up.
The League Bowlers, like the great roots bands that inspired them, remembered the end of the party and when the party was in full swing. Each player brings their personality to the fore. The swinging rhythm section handles barroom seductions like “Half of Me” and a slinky narcotized cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Essence” and rave-ups like “Saturday Night There’s a Party” and “Kids Down South”. It’s easy to hear Gawel’s voice relaxing into its best self.
But the secret weapon here is Mike Parks on lead guitar. Gawel mentioned Parks had lived at the MC5 house and you can hear Wayne Kramer as a guiding light along with Chuck Berry but he’s too savvy and committed a player to ever be a slavish imitator. His fresh, infectious, unstoppable playing here is enough to make you curse he not being more often recorded – with Willie Phoenix, with that lineup of The Godz, with anybody. It also makes the listener glad this record exists.
My favorites of the original tracks have a snarling, dark edge, more reminiscent of the Satellites’ In the Land of Salvation and Sin than their jokier roots. The songs pan for gold in dark rooms with characters who can’t figure out if they’re coming or going or even if there’s a difference anymore. “Get Up Get Out” oozes barrelhouse piano, courtesy of co-producer Rick Kinsinger, between the simpatico swing of Cochran’s bass and Johnson’s kick as Gawel snarls “Why you hanging round this town, hoping someone will buy the next round? The only thing we’re doing here is getting out…Boy, you’re getting old.” “Been Thinkin'” lights a powder-keg of southern-fried AC/DC-stomp and spidery, acid, mocking guitar underneath a monologue depicting a fragile point in sobriety, “The bar is open, my car is stopping. I had a good run. Tomorrow’s day number one.” “Here I Am” intertwines Gawel’s voice in his lowest, most engaging mode, gold-plates it in the harmonies of Scrawl’s Marcy Mays, and lights it on fire with Parks’ guitar shading.
The five new tracks hold up to anything from the original batch. The infectious Parks-written instrumental “11th Frame” is a standout. “Two Sets of Rules” is a funny song that splits the difference between The Del Lords’ “I Play the Drums” and The Sovines’ “Just Got Back in Town” with a wry grin and whip-crack guitar. “She’s My Inspiration” reminds us all there’s still life in the classic Bo Diddley beat the same way their cover of Willie Phoenix’s pop gem “I Wish She Was My Girl” reminds us how many great songs in the Phoenix catalogue are still sitting in the vault.
Gawel said, “The thing that got the band back together was when Jim told us he had cancer and had to quit playing with Willie Phoenix. We love Jim, we love Mike, that’s what got us back together. Then right away we fell into that groove. Then when Mike said he had Stage IV cancer, it was a mission: We have to get this thing done. We played the tribute at Valley Dale, he played with everybody. Big Room Bar had this night open; when we talked to him, Parks wants to do it.”
I recommend the new edition in any format you can find it. But I most highly recommend the limited run of nostalgia-inducing long boxes created by graphic design secret weapon Mike McDermott. Not only does the cover reproduce his brilliant Stones parody art but the attention to detail even extends to recreated The Nice Price and Buzzard’s Nest stickers. Gawel said, “This is a master stroke. He did this without clearing it with anyone, he ran with his idea.” If that sells out before you get one, the regular CD still includes good reproductions of the art and liner notes from one of our under-sung rock historians, Ricki C.
Colin said, “When you get these four guys in a room together, there’s nothing like it.” Cochran added, “What I love about the Bowlers is all four members care about being rock and roll historians to a degree. This is a band of two generations of musicians whose senior generation touched rock and roll in ways that are unbelievable, frankly. And I think Colin and I have had opportunities to move that ourselves. This is a tribute to blues-based rock and roll, that style, that attitude. I think the Bowlers celebrate the rock and roll-ness of rock and roll.”
The League Bowlers play Big Room Bar on Saturday, December 23. Doors at 6:00 p.m., free.