- Rob K
- Scott Jarvis
Rock music, by nature a basic and primal expression, has often been a more difficult and complex medium in New York City, where its history has been one of arch artiness, vanguard experimentation, and extreme onslaughts of cerebral dissonance. In the '90s, however, a new vibe has begun to emerge that's decidedly less pretentious, contrived and elitist. You can call it rock, but at heart it's pure blues - rootsy, raw, and soulful. But the rise of the urban, postpunk blues rock of bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Boss Hog, and Railroad Jerk is not entirely sudden or unheralded. Off in the margins of Gotham's punk, no-wave, and hardcore scenes lie two crusty old characters who have been stumbling and bumbling down the rocky road of blues since the pre-history of "alternative" jangledom. Their friends and family may call them Rob Kennedy and Scott Jarvis, but for the rest of us they're simply known as the Workdogs.
The Workdogs are a musician's band. If they draw a hundred fans for a show, ninety-nine of 'em are probably members of local rock groups, the majority of whom are probably a lot more famous and popular than the Workdogs will ever be. Perhaps it's inevitable that two men who've been toiling in the underground in such relative obscurity for so long, and have displayed such remarkable aim when it comes to perpetually shooting themselves in the foot career-wise should eventually become cherished losers of quasi-legendary cult status. But the real fact of the matter is that the Workdogs have proven to be a very significant influence on a number of younger bands who are now rising to pop prominence. They certainly didn't invent the blues, nor even are they willing to accept credit for its particular rock vernacular today, citing instead the seminal work done by NYC's long-defunct High Sheriffs of Blue (with whom Workdogs' drummer Scott Jarvis played) and their out-of town compatriots. Tav Falco's Panther Burns and The Gun Club. But there's something in the way the Workdogs have unraveled the formula of Chicago blues and brought it back to its idiosyncratic Delta-era performance style that has made the music extremely relevant to contemporary rock sensibilities.
Although they didn't start playing out together and recording their own songs until the mid-'80s, they've existed as rhythm section for hire through a long lineage of ground breaking acts. Jarvis came up through the much revered North Carolina punk outfit The Cigaretts, before graduating to the hardcore of Bloodclot and the aka The Toasters, along the way playing with everyone from Richard Hell to the Beastie Boys. Singer/bassist Rob Kennedy came out of DC's legendary Chumps and did time with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It was no doubt their endless years as sidemen on stage and in the studio with acts like Half Japanese, Mo Tucker, The Velvet Monkeys, and The Gibson Brothers which earned them the title Workdogs. Those years were also most likely the source of the frustration which pushed them to do their own music, and to feature their own different guest musician for each show. Or, as Kennedy puts it, "it was a campaign to despise all guitar players and treat them like the shit they've treated us."
Their habit of constantly rotating their musical collaborators has made quite an event of their monthly free shows at NYC's local rock star hang-out, Max Fish. Such unpredictability has also made their various misadventures in the recording studio too problematic for any major label to dare subsidize. The Workdogs' sporadic attempts to capture their slacker-sloppy blues on record have indeed included a veritable who's who of indie rock's underbelly, including Hi Sheriffs' Mark Dagley, Don Fleming and Malcolm Riviera of Velvet Monkeys and Gumball, ex-Voidiido Ivan Julian, Ted Horowitz )aka Papa Chubby), Greg from Rasing Slab, Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell, Half Japanese's Jad and David Fair, Lydia Lunch, Mo Tucker, Richard Kern, Lisa Mernick (now in Juliana Hatfield's group), Honeymoon Killers/Chrome Crank Jerry Teel, Jon Spencer, and Marcellus Hall of Railroad Jerk. Their star-studded slothploitations do seem to keep the band's independent label Sympathy For The Music Industries happy enough to keep the majority of them still in print after all these years, so you can probably hunt down some of their classic missives like Roberta, Workdogs In Hell, A Tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson, or their latest and perhaps most aptly titled, Old.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly how the Workdogs have impacted their peers. Certainly they've done much to bring the older roots of blues, from Lightning Hopkins to Blind Lemon Jefferson, into the consciousness of New York Cool, and that with casual style of performing that's not so much about coloring between the lines as letting loose in board personal strokes of rough and immediate expression.
Whenever the Workdogs starts working with someone new, there always seems to be this gradual process of getting them loosened up, down n' dirty, and for that learning experience there may be many in the pantheon of rock who owe them a big one. Perhaps the most important contribution they've made to the musical landscape, however, is something a little less tangible. It has to do with finding, or maybe even creating, a continuum, a connection with another history that remains unwritten. Scott Jarvis hints at it when he says the blues is "more simple than punk rock," but Kennedy gets closer to the point: "It was like punk rock…unschooled, idiosyncratic performers." And that is basically what these guys do - punk the blues, blue up punk. The Workdogs bring back a sparse, intimate, and urgent voice to rock, harking back to those magical moments in time when the craft was less anal, simply because the performance and the feeling were everything.
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