More than one observer of the Arizona rock scene has noted that had the Sidewinders not been derailed by legal and label problems, the Tucson quartet might’ve beaten neighboring Tempe’s Gin Blossoms to the brass ring. Or maybe it was just a case of the too-good/too-early American band syndrome in the conservative pre-Nirvana era.
Formed in 1986 around the songwriting core of guitarist Richard Hopkins and vocalist David Slutes, the Sidewinders quickly garnered local acclaim and recorded ¡Cuacha! for Hopkins’ own San Jacinto label. (San Jacinto has released numerous regional records, including some by the Gin Blossoms.) The album has its share of jangly folk-rock moments instantly familiar to any fan of mid-’80s R.E.M. Yet its traditional feel — part psychedelic pop and part dustbowl blues — suggests influences stretching back at least two decades.
The two Mammoth albums, however, nail down a specific identity. Hopkins’ expansive “big guitar” references Neil Young and Crazy Horse; his uncomplicated melodies are as immediate and hummable as Tom Petty’s. And Slutes’ enigmatic lyrical concerns (the drug of love, the mystic powers of the sun and moon, the dark edges of the soul) — delivered in the best romantic baritone since Neil Diamond (there’s even a cover of “Solitary Man” on Witchdoctor) — make for a charismatic combination. A brooding mid-tempo rocker like Witchdoctor‘s “Bad Crazy Sun” contrasts with the full-tilt heavy guitar stomp of Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall‘s “Doesn’t Anyone Believe.” The band typically swings between these two poles, knowing just when to add harmony vocals, a weeping violin or a brace of acoustic guitars.
The Sidewinders’ allegiance to Arthur Lee and Love led to their covering “7 & 7 Is” on Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall and on two separate EPs. The version on a promo-only 1990 EP, Do Not Play This Disc…for Educational Purposes Only, is acoustic, as are two additional Love covers (“Signed D.C.,” “Singing Cowboy”); the record also contains a few Sidewinders originals.
Had the next album appeared on schedule the band’s destiny might’ve been different. Unfortunately a North Carolina covers band called Sidewinder appeared on the horizon waving legal papers. Forced out of the public eye for two years, the Tucson group became the Sand Rubies, recorded an album and waited for contract wranglings to end. Late 1993’s Sand Rubies and the Goodbye EP have the familiar panoramic Sidewinders sound, with some admirable twists courtesy four separate producers (Larry Hirsch, Waddy Wachtel, David Briggs and Mike Campbell). The mandolin/12-string arrangement of “Guns in the Churchyard” is breathtaking, and a cover of Neil Young’s “Interstate” is ruggedly hypnotic. But all the protracted delays extracted a toll; when it came time to tour behind the record, the original rhythm section had long since departed. The Sand Rubies dissolved for good in the middle of ’94. Two years later, San Jacinto issued an excellent posthumous live album that amply demonstrates the band’s balls and chops. (After the demise of the Sand Rubies, Slutes formed a new band he named Ginger. Hopkins promptly got to work on five full-length albums.)
The three records Hopkins issued under the Luminarios name are stylistically and conceptually diverse. Personality Crisis is almost a Tucson compilation, with numerous guests handling lead vocals. Throughout, though, his guitar signatures are present, and he even manages to stake out a cover of “Stepping Stone” for his own. The transitional Dirt Town finds him trying his hand at lead vocals for the first time, with moderate success on some tracks (a blazing “Dirt Town”; a credible cover of the Animals’ “When I Was Young”). The tunes are folkish in flavor, but with enough amplification and Young-ian solos to satisfy old Sidewinders fans. Ditto the brasher, more garagey Dumpster of Love, which introduces the Luminarios as a real band. Hopkins’ singing is better, and he’s growing as a lyricist too. But he’ll always be a fretboard wrangler at heart. Nodding once more to a hero, he serves up a sloppy-but-searing “Powderfinger.”
One pleasing anomaly in the Hopkins discography is Paraguay, an instrumental acoustic disc culled from recordings he made back in the early ’80s while working as a Peace Corpsman in South America. Playing with several Paraguayan musicians and frequently giving them the spotlight, he delivers a convincing set of traditional, flamenco-flavored tunes and the odd cover or two (such as a Latinized version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale”). A creative and musically astute man.
Underbelly is a one-off collaboration between Hopkins and ex-Naked Prey/Woodcocks singer/guitarist David Seger. In addition to a boozy cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine,” Mumblypeg offers a wealth of archetypal desert rock: somber minor-key chord progressions wedded to edge-of-desperation vocals, with a solid blues foundation.