Between ballooning ticket costs and the price of foamy medicine, between the pimping of revolting apparel and bearing witness to past-shelf-life rock stars and calculated pubescents preening in whatever tired context, a worthy few slither through the proverbial cracks of rock ’n’ roll.
Enter the Dragons.
All blanket statements and lathery verbiage aside, what you need to know is the Dragons happen to be one of the best live rock ’n’ roll bands on earth at the moment. Truly. I’ve seen the band more than a dozen times around the country, and even at their worst they make flotsam of their contemporaries. Yet the Dragons’ 10-year struggle to get beyond the club tours, the fetid van smells and sweaty man-tits has been in vain — few have ever heard of the band.
Hence the cliché that the worthy ones rarely get their due.
So it makes sense then that Dragons singer Mario Escovedo grumbles of chest pains. There is, apparently, a bit of personal cross-bearing going on. Having grown up the youngest of 13 in the shadow of critic-darling brothers, Alejandro and Javier, who can blame him for feeling pressure? Toss in the fact that he listens for news breaks on a police scanner for a living, has two kids, a wife and coaches a losing Little League team (2-12 this season) — plus he’s the main songwriter in the viciously overlooked San Diego quartet — and you can understand. His is one of those near-futile existences forked at the stem that makes for great rock ’n’ roll songwriting.
“The pressure to be good with my brothers and everything was so much,” he says, half mockingly. “That’s something that’s always been hanging over my head. And with my wife, I’m in the doghouse a lot.”
See, Escovedo has purchased two myths, each requiring an eagle-eyed precision to balance. He’s the Catholic family man whose flipside sees him on tour mired in long, liver-pickling nights filled with Stones-cum-Heartbreakers reverie. And it all comes out in the tunes.
The Dragons’ songs straddle Bukowskian bluster and sincere admissions of fearing failure, and of failure itself. A clever outline of honesty lurks below the wonderfully bombastic surface of bristle and riffs, hooks and sneers.
Beside Escovedo’s pitched, melodious rasp there’s guitarist Kenny Horne’s rare brand of guitar heroism, which summons undervalued Generation X guitarist Derwood Andrews and, of course, Ron Asheton. The groove machine that is bassist Steve Rodriquez and drummer Jarrod Lucas keep the band’s three- and four-minute blasts firmly aground.
On a cell from San Diego, Escovedo speaks about “dealing with the 9-to-5 bureaucracy of everyday life in a band” that, for whatever reason, can’t feed him or his mates, much less his family. He speaks of competing with the onslaught of 19-year-old pin-up punks that hog chart positions, teen hearts and major label dough; about carrying on despite insuperable odds and personal sacrifices; about the brotherhood of the Dragons and the collective ideal of “playing for keeps.”
“If it came down to it, it’s all of us looking at our lives,” he says. “Maybe that’s what keeps us going.” He pauses. Then he adds, laughing, “Kenny’s got that Japanese work ethic, just a staple for the band. If there’s a kamikaze, he’s the guy. Maybe that’s it.”
The Dragons’ songs have always endured, however slack the recorded presentation has been thus far. The band’s latest — the pertinently titled Sin Salvation, the seventh full-length if you count a Japanese greatest-hits package — is their best to date.
Gearhead records signed the band straight off its indie success with the Vines and afforded the band a real studio, real distribution and a believing staff. Those things help, particularly after the band’s last label, Junk Records, went belly-up.
The record is a salvation of sorts. It shows that the Dragons are no prisoners of history; rather, a ratty mélange of heroin-bust era Stones, pre-jaundiced Johnny Thunders and the wrecked power chord-singalong frolic of the Wildhearts and the Hellacopters.
What links major bands of yore, particularly bloated rock plutocracies like Limp Bizkit and Metallica, is a desperation to remain relevant — and desperation is the opposite of sexy. The Dragons are not desperate; in fact, they’re hungry, and their ability to traipse forth full of hope and cheeky arrogance makes what they do sexy. Rock ’n’ roll is — by design and necessity — supposed to be sexy. Sin Salvation, from start to finish, is all that.
Sure, the Dragons tread well-traversed ground, but they spool clichés with a wink and a nod. They’re not burned out in a whirlpool of shitty quotes and fried-liver antics. Hell, they’ve never been allowed to familiarize themselves with a certain level of celebrity.
“Some things will never be fair,” understates Escovedo.
I ask him if that last comment could be a kind of band ethos?
His voice manifests a perfect stoic resolve, and he says, “Nah. Once you’re in, you’re in. And there’s a fine line you have to walk if you want to save your life.”
The Dragons will perform Wednesday, June 18, at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit). For info, call 313-961-4668Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]