A bumpy ride back

I was introduced to the subdudes by my childhood friend Josh in 1990 — the year he discovered he was dying.

The band had just released their self-titled debut album on Atlantic Records, and we played it over and over in our tiny apartment on San Francisco’s Haight Street.

More than the specific songs, I remember the tone of the music, the sweetly rocking, soulful cadences that allowed us to both celebrate the moment and mourn what would soon be lost — the whole scene entangled with blood-ties to the South that we alternately cherished and scorned. Somehow, the subdudes’ music — layers of R&B, zydeco, blues, funk, roots-rock and gospel, all driven by Tommy Malone’s ruined-choirboy vocals — spoke to that, as well.

Besides the intangible essence of that first album which made it so wonderful, a couple very concrete musical differences marked the subdudes’ sound: The traditional drum kit was forsaken for the snaky, otherworldly rhythm achieved by accordion and tambourine, an unusual percussive mix. And then came Malone’s earthy, impassioned vocals, complemented by dead-on harmonies (so rare these days).

The lead singer/guitarist attributes his group’s “difference” to a simple sense of Delta-derived rhythm.

“If you’re from New Orleans or have spent time there, you’re inundated with rhythm,” Malone noted in a phone interview from his current home in Jackson, Miss. “It’s in the way the mules walk, the way people talk, even the way people sit on their porches. The front porch of my parents’ house when I was growing up was the spot people would come to hang. People would stop by, play music, talk. There was a whole rhythm to that.”

In the rhythm of my own life, the subdudes appeared again in 1994 with the release of Annunciation, arguably the band’s masterpiece. Highlighted by unforgettable ballads (most notably, the achingly lovely “Why Can’t I Forget About You?”), the disc was the background music that launched me on the long, meandering odyssey that eventually culminated in a move back East, to home.

Annunciation was the beginning of the subdudes’ return home, as well. Their journey also took a winding (and sometime tortuous) route.

The band is the love child of what was meant to be a one-night stand at New Orleans’ famous Tipitina’s. As Malone describes it, the gig came about because keyboardist/accordionist John Magnie was doing a regular show at the club during the summer of 1987. At the time, Malone played with Magnie in a rock band called the Continental Drifters, which also included percussionist Steve Amadee and bassist Johnny Ray Allen (both had gone to high school with Malone).

“We were tired of the loud rock thing,” remembers Malone. “We thought we would do a gig at Tip’s and be kind of subdued. We agreed we would bring only what we could carry in one trip with us. … We’d been rehearsing at my house. There was a tambourine lying around, and Steve started fooling around with it and using a spatula and some wooden kitchen implement of some kind.”

The foursome hastily dubbed themselves “the subdudes” (lower case) and played two sets at Tipitina’s.

“After the first set, we just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, something’s going on here,'” remembers Malone. “When it was over, we got lots of comments from musician friends in the crowd. We were playing something different, something people really hadn’t heard before.”

The group ended up gigging at Tipitina’s for the rest of the summer; that fall, they relocated, en masse, to Fort Collins, Colo.

The move led the band’s sound to be dubbed “Rocky Mountain swamp rock” — a term way too wrought with sharp edges to be accurate.

“There’s so much music in New Orleans that it’s hard to be successful there,” Malone says by way of explanation. “We felt like in order for this thing to survive, we needed to take it somewhere that it would be new.”

Band members had discussed New York City and L.A., remembers Malone. “But then we just thought, ‘No way.'”

“John [Magnie] grew up in Denver, and we thought, well, that area was the middle of everything,” Malone continues. “But instead of going to the big city of Denver, we went to [nearby] Fort Collins.”

Their motley westward trek was apparently quite a picture. “We were like the Beverly Hillbillies, with babies, cats, you name it,” remembers Malone.

Once in Colorado, the band wrote a slew of songs and recorded a number of demos.

“Then we got a record-industry guy involved and an attorney involved, and a studio guy took the demos around and we got a deal with Atlantic Records,” summarizes Malone matter-of-factly.

And from that deal sprang the group’s stunning debut.

A year after the subdudes hit the streets, the band released Lucky (Atlantic, 1991), a worthy follow-up that cemented the group’s signature sound. But after that, the band’s story becomes tricky.

They were later dropped by Atlantic and began recording with High Street, a division of Windham Hill. Then studio sessions in London went sour, and the band finished their next album back home in New Orleans.

And a glorious homecoming it was. Primitive Streak (1996) was the last studio album that version of the band recorded together. (Live at Last, the group’s only live album, was released by High Street in 1997, the year after the subdudes disbanded.)

The final album was a departure for the group in several ways. More electric and soul-rock oriented than previous works, it also featured the high-profile prowess of Bonnie Raitt on “Too Soon to Tell,” a gorgeous duet with Malone on Dobro and Raitt on electric slide guitar. Not a bad way to go out. Temporarily, that is.

I asked Malone about the band’s break-up, expecting the same hazy mumblings about “creative differences” I’d previously read in the press. Instead, he was refreshingly blunt.

“It just didn’t seem to be fun for anybody anymore. … And there were big personality conflicts with [bassist] Johnny Ray Allen. Control issues. Perceptions. Attitudes. It got really, really not comfortable.”

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