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The Bootheels - 1988: The Original Demos (Omnivore)

28 September 2021

There are a million teenage rock & roll bands happening at any one time in America, and especially Los Angeles. The Bootheels were one of many, many combos knockin’ it out with little goal in mind than making a big honkin’ noise and hoping someone might notice. It’s a familiar story, which begs the question: what makes the Bootheels special enough to earn 1988: The Original Demos, a collection from one of the country’s most respected reissue labels?

For one thing, it’s the membership. Singer/bassist Luther Russell would go on to the Freewheelers and Those Pretty Wrongs with Jody Stephens, not to mention a fecund solo career. Guitarists Jakob Dylan and Tobi Miller would soon anchor the Apples, better known as the Wallflowers, with Miller appearing on the band’s first album and Dylan leading the group to commercial glory. Drummer Aaron A. Brooks began a prolific session career that includes stints with Moby and Lana Del Rey, among others. None of them knew it during the ‘heels’ few months of existence (which included all of two gigs outside of the garage), but the boys would all become respected and successful professionals.

But it’s also because of the songs – there aren’t many under-18s with the kind of grasp on songcraft that the Bootheels display here. Obviously enamored of the Replacements (but who with a guitar and a penchant for melody in the late eighties wasn’t?), the band comes up with a collection of ragged but right tunes that sound like the lost album between Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and Hootenany. Penned by Russell in various combos with the other members, the raw rockers (“Wasted Dime,” “Queen of Hearts,” the ambitiously arranged “Images of You,” the perfectly teenage “Empty Wallet, Empty Bottle, Empty Heart”), midtempo burners (“Interstate 68 Blues,” “Seven Seas,” “The Deal”) and punky anthems (“Too Many People”) unabashedly emulate Paul Westerberg’s beautiful crash ‘n’ burn. But the songs and performances contain just enough of the band’s own personality to, if not keep them from being ‘Mats clones, at least indicate that the group could’ve become something more. Hell, even without that, the ‘heels’ giddy energy and genuine feel for hooky rock & roll makes the cuts a blast to hear.

Since the band’s one attempt at making a professional demo didn’t work out, all of the tracks come from rehearsal tapes. While the fidelity is surprisingly solid (kudos to Russell and Jason Hiller for the remix and sonic upgrade), it’s still extremely raw, so don’t expect pro-grade sound. But for the Bootheels, the rough sonics are completely appropriate. The tracks on 1988 aren’t deathless odes destined to become classics, but the outbursts of a bunch of unusually talented kids finding their way in and expressing their love for rock & roll. Like those millions of bands careening around their garages as we type, who can ask for more than that?