Sometimes traditions were meant to be broken. The Cigar Store Indians found this out by way of a happy accident that ended up having a lot to do with what they became.
Formed seven years ago by singer/guitarist Ben Friedman, the band also currently includes Jim Lavender on guitar and vocals, Pup Roberts on drums and Keith Perissi on bass and vocals. “I had intended for it to be more of an authentic rockabilly band, upright bass and all,” Friedman says, “but we couldn’t find anyone who played one then.”
At that point, to enable the band to start playing gigs, Friedman recalls, “We decided to forgo the upright and use Keith, a decision that kept us from limiting the sound to just traditional rockabilly.”
If there’s any one word that describes Cigar Store Indians, “limited” isn’t it. “This band has really opened me up creatively, to where my songwriting can go into lots of different areas I’m interested in — a little honky-tonk, Latin, Spanish, and rockabilly,” Friedman says.
The band’s flexibility has enabled them to take advantage of revivals in old-time musical forms. “We’ve been getting booked into these swing nights at clubs,” Friedman says. “I don’t understand it, but we seem to be crossing over pretty well with that crowd. I’m not going to question it if it gets us more gigs; I’d play for a boatload of cows if they asked us to.”
That positive attitude toward live performance has gained Cigar Store Indians, who hail from the tiny Georgia burg of Crabapple (about 40 miles north of Atlanta), their most avid fans. An Indians show is never less than a good time, and often much more than that. Taking the best qualities of the Blasters, the Stray Cats and Elvis, with Friedman all over whatever stage they’re on, they make it nearly impossible to watch them and sit still.
Friedman believes the key to their success as a live band is their total commitment to the show. “When you get onstage, everything else needs to be left behind,” he says. “The playing part is the best part of being in a band for me, the only thing that makes it worthwhile. And if you want to do music for a living, you have to cover all the bases. The live thing is first base.”
If you follow the baseball analogy and assume that the recording studio is second base, then the new album El Baile De La Cobra finds the Indians hitting a solid double. Admirably following up their self-titled 1995 debut on Landslide Records, the Indians turn in memorable toe-tappers such as “Forget” and “Tossin’ N Turnin’”, as well as more mature material such as “Heaven” and “Eagles Need A Push”.
According to Friedman, those last two songs probably signal the direction the band is headed. “Those are where my heart is at right now,” he says. “If we do another record, we may go down that path.”
A couple hidden bonus tracks offer stripped-down acoustic versions of those same two songs, recorded on a portable tape deck around the kitchen table in Friedman’s farmhouse. For such a publicly flamboyant band, the recordings provide an intimate ending to an excellent album, and a promise of more interesting music to come.