SITTING TEN FEET IN FRONT OF Lee Rocker’s quartet at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall is like sitting on the hood of a ’59 Caddy revving its engine as it roars down Route 66. The 50-year-old slap savant’s rare Greenwich Village set consisted mostly of roots-rock and rockabilly faves, including smash hits from his doghouse days with the Stray Cats. The project he’s promoting, however, is a bit of departure. The Cover Sessions is Rocker’s new six-song EP selected from his favorite ’70s AM radio hits. The choices range from Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” to Elton John’s “Honky Cat” and the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.” All are done in an Americana-tinged minimalist style, with Rocker’s cagey vocals snaking around his rock-solid upright and other acoustic instruments.
How did The Cover Sessions come about?
I had been buying and collecting various instruments—mandolins, ukuleles, banjos, autoharps, accordions—and as I messed around learning how to play them, cover songs that I grew up listening to on my transistor radio would come to mind. That was the starting point. For the recording, I re-arranged the songs and played most of the instruments, with a focus on an acoustic sound and very light drums—just a backbeat. We cut more songs, but the six on the EP are the ones that worked the best while retaining the essence of the originals.
How was your two-week Broadway run playing Jay Perkins in Million Dollar Quartet?
It was a blast and near to my heart because while I never met Jay, I had a close personal and working relationship with [brother] Carl Perkins. He’s the undersung member of that Mount-Rushmore-of-rock-and-roll quartet. I knew all the songs, but I also had ten speaking lines I had to deliver. Probably the biggest challenge was the music that went on behind the dialogue, with stops and starts on key words. On my final night we had a curtain call jam, in which I performed “Rockabilly Boogie.”
What insight can you offer when it comes to slapping and singing while playing?
Creating rhythmic patterns via slapping is a great way to imply other feels and add interest and fire to the music. My concern is I see too many beginners overly focused on their plucking-hand technique at the expense of note choice and intonation. That’s another pet peeve of mine: players who look at the neck. You need to use your ears to play in tune, not your eyes. As for singing and playing, I’m one who has done it for so long it’s second nature. I’m still amazed at the limb independence of drummers, or even pianists! My advice is to begin with easy songs, where the vocal starts on the downbeat and has a regular cadence to it. As you advance to more difficult songs, analyze where the melody falls and where the key accents are in the bass line. Always work slowly and you’ll keep having breakthroughs.
Basses Signature Kolstein Busetto Bass (with Jargar Dolce strings); Signature King Doublebass (with unknown gut strings)
Pickups “I use two Planet Wing pickups, which I run into separate channels on my amp. One is on the bridge for a round overall tone and lows. The other is under the fingerboard for highs and the percussive sounds from slapping.”
Rig Ampeg SVT-4PRO head with SVT-810E cabinet
HEAR HIM ON
The Cover Sessions [2011, leerocker.com]