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There are those who appreciate the subtle shades that distinguish cowpunk from hellbilly, and then there are others who just want to hear loud, hard-nosed rock and country with an elective air of old-school camp. Though the nuance of the music at the yearly Heavy Rebel Weekender, starting this Friday in and around the Millennium Center, might degrade somewhat after swilling a case of Pabst in an afternoon, you’ll never drink away the image of a 180-pound woman mud-wrestling three guys wearing only tighty whiteys and sleeves of tattoos on a muggy July afternoon.
But why would you want to? Heavy Rebel is at least a year’s worth of people-watching packed into three days of Sal Mineo cosplay, real-deal Brylcream aficionados and women indistinguishably dressed as either Disney princesses or Playboy bunnies. The iconography is as much a part of what makes Heavy Rebel the Triad’s, if not North Carolina’s, most distinctive festival — come for the muscle cars, lowriders, rat rods, mohawks, up-dos, polka dots, leather, zippers, flames, skulls, bands fronted by upright bassists, drummers that play standing up and singers that double as burlesque dancers, stay for the wet T-shirt, donut-eating and beerdrinking contests, but also consume as much of the brazen, ballsy sound that surfaces from the recesses of greaser and punk culture.
If there’s a de facto headliner in amidst this year’s motley assemblage, it’s not rockabilly patriarch Dexter Romweber, but Joe Buck at midnight on Saturday, who is not to be confused with the “more boring than the car-chase scene in Mitchell” baseball announcer Joe Buck. Joe Buck Yourself is the solo pseudonym for Kentucky songwriter Jim Finkley, a surly, foul-mouthed bastion of all that is badass, and of highly questionable sanity, who cut his chops as a Legendary Shack Shaker in service to Col. JD Wilkes and played most of the instruments on their punk classic Cockadoodledon’t. He’s a little less melodic in his solo incarnation, trading the Shack Shakers rumbling twang for a knife-like chord assault while he stomps out the beat and curses the audience between numbers. Like Wilkes, Buck is as much a performance artist at heart as he is a rock and roller, and damn if he doesn’t look the part.
On the topic of Romweber, in a weekend where it’s okay for the collared-shirt crowd to play dress-up, the Romweber of today is the link between the conventional and the eccentric. As the guitarist for cowpunk pioneers the Flat Duo Jets, the Chapel Hill resident is the archetype for the gothic subculture that bled out of the marriage of rock and country. Though his unassuming, almost grim comportment doesn’t give away the vibe of an honest-to-God rock star, without him, there would be no Jack White. It’s been two years since he’s put out new music, the gorgeously unsettling rock-noir trip Is That You In Blue?, but he always stays just inside the radar. Dex returns to Heavy Rebel (there was a rare appearance by his seven-piece ensemble the New Romans two years ago) with his sister Sara on drums and with no album to promote, and the sets from his spring tour reflected that, pulling a little from his solid solo catalog and reaching back for cuts from the Jets’ classic Go Go Harlem Baby, which was reissued not long ago by White’s Third Man Records.
The supplementary appeal of music at Heavy Rebel doesn’t just arise from the eccentricity of its lineup, but from how it’s often presented. The depths of the Millennium Center are transformed into a cabaret-slash-dungeon and given appropriate names like the Wiggle Room and the Jailhouse, the latter a fitting home on Friday night for Chapel Hill’s Michael Rank & Stag, owner of one of the best albums to come out of North Carolina in 2013. Rank has borne as much weight and affliction as the exposed brick columns around the Jailhouse stage, which themselves look like prison bars from the right perspective, and the Stones-y missives on his crumbled marriage that comprise In the Weeds will be the time marked in chalk. He’ll be joined on drums by the steady hand of his Snatches of Pink bandmate John Howie, Jr., who’ll man his own Piedmont-based honky-tonk crew, the Rosewood Bluff, in the same spot afterwards. Billie Feather, Howie’s bassist, is a perennial contender in the Heavy Rebel Upright Bass Slapdown, though her subtle but authoritative style recalls Bob Moore over the kind of Bill Black-flashiness that usually wins such things. It’s no coincidence that some of Moore’s best work — Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” — also happens to be some of Howie’s favorite material.
Not overlooked at Heavy Rebel is its ethnic diversity that keeps the blood flowing in the veins of rockabilly and custom culture. New York City rocker Rodolfo Ramos, otherwise known as Brownbird Rudy Relic, reaches even farther back into those influences than the Little Richardand Morrissey-worshipping factions that are most ubiquitous among the culture. Brownbird Rudy Relic, who plays Friday night, taps the kind of jump blues that predates the yuppified ’90s revival and Delta roots worthy of Lead Belly himself via a beat-up Gretsch Honey Dipper and kazoo. His secret? Great hair and plenty of pomade.
See the full Heavy Rebel Weekender lineup at heavyrebel.net.