By GUY D’ASTOLFO
First, the facts:
The Living Deads is a rockabilly band from Denver who live in an RV and play a lot of gigs in Ohio. They’ll return to the Royal Oaks bar in Youngstown on Friday night for a show.
But that’s just the surface.
The back story involves love, beer, breakups, roller derby, guns, the highway ... and a little bit of kidnapping.
Symphony Tidwell, the band’s instantly memorable upright bass player with the big hair and a trashy-sexy elegance, shared it all in one breathless take in a phone interview this week.
The story begins four years ago in Florida, where Symphony was living with her then-boyfriend and playing on a local roller-derby team.
They went to see the Hillbilly Hellcats, and after the show, Symphony got to talking with the band’s drummer, Randee McKnight.
“My boyfriend got mad, gets drunk and wanders off,” she said. “So I broke up with him, and when I got home at 4 a.m., he was mad. Then he got sad and started blubbering and pulled out a gun and threatened to kill himself if we broke up. I talked him down, and he put down the gun, but I slept with one eye open. The next morning when he went to work, I packed my things and left.”
She took one of his trucks.
“I was barrelling down the road, chain smoking, and he got off work early and started texting me. I got the police to go to the house to make sure he didn’t kill himself.”
She managed to retrieve the rest of her stuff from the apartment. Soon afterward, she received a Myspace message from McKnight. It said, “I was glad to meet you, and I hope I didn’t cause any problems.”
Before long, Symphony was on a plane to Denver, where McKnight lived. He was still playing with the Hillbilly Hellcats, and Symphony started working as a waitress.
He taught her to play drums, then the upright bass, and she got good.
Long story short, the Living Deads was born, with rockabilly veteran Johnny Barber on guitar and vocals. The band would tour the United States, Europe and Canada.
“We couldn’t afford an apartment and a tour vehicle, so [she and McKnight] got an RV,” said Symphony. “We were living in Wal-Mart parking lots. It was pretty sad.”
But when it came time to take the act to the next level, Barber wasn’t ready to leave Denver. The band lost its frontman.
“One night we were talking and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could play with whatever guitarist we wanted? Brian Setzer? Joan Jett?’ We’d be their rhythm section. One of us said, ‘Let’s kidnap them and make them play with us.”
It was a joke, but they quickly realized they were on to something. That offhand remark would become the modus operandi that propelled the Living Deads forward and became their calling card.
Before heading off on road trips now, the band reaches out to club owners to find a local member of the rockabilly scene who wants to play some shows. They then “kidnap” him.
“The first time we did it, we rolled into Kansas City, haggard, and it was a packed house,” said Symphony. “We said, ‘Did you guys come here to see Johnny Barber and the Living Deads? Well, he ain’t here. Go get his replacement.’ And then Randee goes out and comes back with two men with burlap sacks over their heads. We pulled them off, and it was two local celebrities from a band, and the crowd loved it.
“We started doing that every night. Now it’s our thing.”
Steve Trent of Canton, best known locally for his band Rumbledaddy, has played with the Living Deads, as has Steve Vain of Akron.
“[Vain] was on the road with us for four months,” said Symphony. “He has Stockholm Syndrome.”
For Friday’s show at the Royal Oaks, Chuck Hughes of the Hillbilly Hellcats will be the guest guitarist.