There’s a lot of cachet and much romance tied to the notion that a certain type of rock ’n’ roll savantism can be evoked from picking up an instrument without training. The drive to make music without regard to technical competency is at the root of the blues and a conceit that often presents punk rock as the savior of rock ’n’ roll. The idea might be appealing due to some ingrained American desire to root for the underdog. Or it could be that learning how to play an instrument properly might involve the unpleasant experience of going to a chain music store or performing guitar tricks like the “hammer-on.” The Gories are among those associated with the legend of a group of friends starting a band without any prior experience. Their recent performance at the Bell House, supported by one-man-band virtuoso Mark Sultan, promotes the notion that rock ’n’ roll flourishes in ways that we don’t fully understand.
Before the Gories took the stage, the crowd was treated to a set of songs from Mark Sultan’s extensive catalogue. His raspy vocal delivery and slightly distorted guitar complement his skillful mash of blues, doo-wop, and soul riffs as he drums out simple accompanying beats with his feet. Sultan’s set was an effortless stream of rock ’n’ roll tunewriting. There were few breaks in the music, Sultan filling the gaps between songs with noisy interludes played in his heavy-handed guitar style. After each of these, he would launch into the next tune immediately, with no introductory banter. “Waddlin’ Around,” written under his pseudonym BBQ, has become a minor classic, and the crowd swayed and sang along to the song accordingly.
As the Gories prepared to go on, singer/guitarist Mick Collins meticulously set up his amp and then abruptly left the stage; when he reappeared he had changed into Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. With the correct footwear in place, the trio launched into their set. There may be no significance to the pre-show shoe change, but the opening chords of the Gories’s set registered as music best served with rock’s shoe of choice grounding the singer.
Since their raw beginnings in Detroit in the ’80s the members of the Gories (Collins, drummer Peggy O’Neill—on a minimal kit with notches on her toms to hold a tambourine down—and Dan Kroha on second guitar) have become seasoned performers. Alternating maracas for sticks and a tambourine on and off the snare, O’Neill doled out a repertoire of party beats owing much to the bone-rattling rhythms of early Bo Diddley. Collins and Kroha’s practiced technique of playing off each other with a combination of clean and distorted guitar sounds rendered a bassist unnecessary.
The set started with the punky theme “Hey, Hey, We’re the Gories,” from the group’s 1990 album I Know You Fine, but How You Doin’. Two tribal hoppers, “You Make it Move” and “I Think I’ve Had It,” followed. Being one of the band’s better-known songs, “I Think I’ve Had It” got the audience pumped up and dancing, setting the tone for the evening. A bluesier number, “Early in the Morning,” also prompted the crowd to dance and sing along with no coaxing from the band. Among the handful of soul-tinged rockers emanating from the stage was the obvious crowd favorite “Sister Ann,” from the Gories’s debut album House Rockin’. Songs with more sustained grooves came in the form of a jumpy cover version of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” and the band’s eerily hollow masterpiece “There But for the Grace of God Go I.”
It goes without saying that after so many years in and out of various bands, the members of the Gories are now accomplished players. Yet the trio continues to project the raw energy of a group of kids just discovering rock ’n’ roll; they still give the appearance of a bunch of friends figuring it out. Midway through “I Think I’ve Had It,” Kroha shrugged and yelled back to the band, “I can’t help it, I love this song!” Whether he was lost and apologizing or just having a good time didn’t matter; the dynamic from the stage never let up. The hope that rock ’n’ roll exists in a state that we don’t fully understand lives on in the Gories. Their raw music makes cracks in the dam of viral marketing and cross-promotion that keeps awful music coming at us all the time. Besides being a great band, the Gories keep alive the idea that fandom may just be enough.