Performing Pop Harmonies Here Tonight: The Bodeans

Posted: October 16, 1987

Want to stump someone who fancies himself a crack cryptographer? Ask him to decipher the code that makes sense of the BoDeans' motley songbook.

On this Midwestern group's two albums, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams and the recent Outside Looking In (both Slash/Warner), you can hear clear echoes of musicians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Freddy Fender, Dion, Fleetwood Mac and the Everly Brothers. So what makes it all hang together?

Kurt Neumann says the key is quite simple: "We're all about good songs. If a song is good, it has a certain thing about it, a groove or a good feeling to it."

Because the BoDeans believe only in the sanctity of the song, they will pursue a choice melody wherever it leads, oblivious to genre boundaries. The result is a mix that ranges from the funky "Don't Be Lonely" to the chiming Asian flavor of "Rickshaw Riding."

Somehow, this young band, which performs tonight at the Chestnut Cabaret, has taken the mongrel that is American pop music and trained it to obey. Credit belongs to its leaders, Neumann and Sammy Llanas. These 26-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarists create a powerful, confident sound that belies their lack of training.

"We're not schooled musicians, not really musically very technically talented people," says Neumann. "We just pick up our instruments and play them the best we can. I think that makes for something nice and original."

Their most distinctive gift is for harmonies. Neumann has a standard tenor, but with a tone as lonely as a distant night train. Llanas' voice, high and nasal, is at once unsettling and captivating. Together, they have an inexplicably sublime vocal chemistry.

"The singing and the harmonies are really our strength," says Neumann. ''It just came out that way. . . . When we sing together live, it's more powerful than anything else we do."

Ah, the BoDeans' live show. In a pop-music pond full of sleek catamarans, the BoDeans are a weathered dugout canoe. And working hard to keep it that way. In performance, its members dress down and try to stay humble.

"People have their jobs and they do their things," says Neumann. "This is what we do. It doesn't mean we're better than anyone else or any kind of a star. We try to get it across to audiences that we're just like you except we're up here playing guitars."

It's getting harder to remain down-to-earth. Neumann and Llanas were asked by Robbie Robertson, the former leader of The Band, to sing on his long- awaited comeback album. And next month, the group leaves the club scene behind to open for U2 in arenas across the country.

"When I think about being back in high school and big rock shows coming to the stadium in Milwaukee," says Neumann, "there would be like three acts, say Heart and Steve Miller and somebody else. I thought about them all as being major, major bands. But when I think about us playing with U2, it doesn't seem the same to me.

"I wonder if there are kids out there who are thinking, 'Whoa, the BoDeans are with them - cool,' or something like that."

Both Llanas and Neumann were raised in working-class families in Waukesha, Wis., the birthplace of guitar legend Les Paul. The town, 20 miles west of Milwaukee, was a factory town that attracted many Mexican workers - Llanas' family among them - from the Southwest to work in its foundries after World War II. In recent years, the smoke stacks have shut down and the town, to both singers' dismay, is rapidly being converted into a yuppie bedroom community.

Growing up, the two boys shared a love of music, their tastes having been shaped by Top-40 AM stations. At parties they would hang out by the stereo speakers listening to records.

Seven years ago last week, at Neumann's 19th birthday party, they decided to try to make some music of their own. Apparently the air was heavy with kismet.

"The first time Sam and I played together it was such a magical feeling between us," recalls Neumann. "We felt like we had one direction, and we've kept that feeling ever since.

"The singing worked so well for us, but we never planned it. We just opened our mouths and out it came."

With Neumann on electric and Llanas on acoustic guitar, the duo began honing their skills and writing prolifically. During this period, they were the house band in a local bar and pool hall, playing for drinks.

Eventually drummer Guy Hoffman was added, and then bass player Bob Griffin. (Hoffman is on sabbatical and two other musicians have been hired for this tour.) The band developed a reputation as a dynamic live act and earned a record contract on the strength of a demo tape that showcased their songwriting abilities.

Llanas came up with the band's name, a reference to the Jethro Bodine character played by Max Baer in the Beverly Hillbillies sitcom.

"The connection is something we try not to get too involved with," says Neumann. "When Sammy first said it to me, it reminded me of Jimmy Dean and I thought this band could connect with that image."

At first the band members adopted BoDean as their generic last name in the tradition of the Ramones. For instance, Neumann was known as "Beau BoDean." They have since abandoned the concept as hokey and confusing.

The title of the first album, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, was taken from a line in the Rolling Stones' song "Shattered." It also served as a pithy summation of the BoDeans' lyrical themes. That record was greeted enthusiastically by music writers and earned a full-page paean in Time magazine.

With Outside Looking In, public regard is beginning to catch up to critical estimations.

"This is a lot nicer than the last tour," says Neumann, "when 20 people would turn out. But we're still driving our own bus and doing our own laundry. We're by no means rock stars."

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