And that's Schwamp Rat's surface story, a tale familiar to anyone with friends or family members who grew up during rock's golden age and refuse to "act their age" by surrendering their beloved strings and sticks. But beneath this commonplace tale lurks one of the area's most intriguing Spinal Tap sagas, an inspirational yarn starring a cast of characters that addresses its trials and tribulations with oblivious good humor.
Let's start with the names: This isn't really just two Dons and a Lon. Bassist/vocalist Hockensmith goes by "Wolfie," a reference to his role as the lead howler in the defunct band Lone Wolf. Schwamp Rat's moniker was inspired by Kilgore's mysterious nickname, "Schwampy." ("Schwamp is the sound the rats' tails make when they slap the mud," Lovell offers; Schwampy's drum-taps make a similar ruckus.) Lovell owes his obscure handle, "Rusty Buckets," to "a girlfriend from years ago."
A hippie at heart, Buckets lives at Armadillo Acres North, where he's surrounded by an enormous organic garden. He still talks the talk ("If you keep your karma good and you treat people well, good things will happen for you. I try to do something nice for someone every day. It comes down to people treating each other like brothers"), but he leaves the Grateful Dead covers to the similarly named Schwag.
The group's fourth member, 42-year-old Steve Balissi, hails from Kecskemét, Hungary. He currently answers (in a thick accent) to "Fast Fingers," an appropriate stopgap solution that Buckets nevertheless implies is too pragmatic to have any real character. But while the group hasn't yet dubbed "the crazy Hungarian" with a lasting title, it has somehow found a way to fit his searing, technically proficient solos into its meat-and-potatoes songs. It's like Steve Vai sitting in with Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band, infusing old-time rock and roll with a freakish glimpse of a future in which evolution bestows extra appendages on gifted guitarists, allowing them to operate with previously inhuman precision.
To haze Balissi, Schwamp Rat's original members stranded him in a winding musical labyrinth called "Back Door to Budapest." "It was a practical joke," Buckets says of the first tune penned with Balissi in mind. "Our whole goal was to screw him up and hold him back, but it just made him play better." The track opens with a trembling, yowling, mind-blowingly complex showing-off-in-the-guitar-store solo before merging into a kindergarten-simple groove. Then Balissi starts working his magic on top of the basic backdrops without sounding out of place, an accomplishment that's like painting a masterpiece on the side-door of a beat-up van while it putters down the street at three miles an hour.
Buckets and Wolfie are the band's main songwriters, responsible for such time-capsule-escapees as "On Speed," a '70s-sounding ode to fast-driving teenage girls, and "Maintenance Man," a Steely Dan-dy chill pill. Schwamp Rat still pads its sets with covers from Roy Orbison, Pink Floyd and Creedence Clearwater Revival, along with some bluesier fare. "We wouldn't be embarrassed to show up at any blues festival and rock out," Buckets claims.