A Celebration of the Lizards of Border Radio

by Dave Hoekstra - Staff Reporter
Chicago Sun-Times - April 4, 2003

The Iguanas have delivered a master blaster of a record in "Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart" (Yep Roc) that marks the pinnacle of a career that has spanned five albums and a dozen years. The project carries a warm intimacy reminiscent of how Fats Domino was recorded in the 1950s. The New Orleans-based band played live face-to-face in the studio. The relaxed sound is a perfect conduit for the band's bolero-cumbia grooves.

Glowing results include the title track's minimalist celebration of the transistor radio (signifying the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There"), "Machete y Maiz," whose acoustic melody lines carry shades of Jose Marti's "Guantanamera," and a couple of rave-ups. Always a strong Chicago draw, the Iguanas headline tonight and Saturday at FitzGerald's. The New York-based Latin-rock band Cordero opens both nights.

For "Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart," the Iguanas were reunited with Chicago native Justin Niebank, who produced the band's 1993 self-titled debut and 1994's "Nuevo Boogaloo" for Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Records. The 14 songs for "Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart" were recorded in eight days last August at the Castle in the countryside of Franklin, Tenn. Like Matassa (Huey "Piano" Smith, Jesse Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"), Niebank (Albert Collins, Blues Traveler, George Jones) facilitated the recording instead of "producing" it.

"We'd get there about one in the afternoon and start warming up," vocalist-guitarist-accordion player Rod Hodges says from the band's New Orleans home base. "I'd just start something on guitar and everybody would fall in. Some of the best tracks we'd get around 5, when the sun was going down."

Listening on a speaker phone, vocalist-sax player-percussionist Joe Cabral adds, "It was very calm. There wasn't a lot of activity, people dropping stuff off, coming in and checking you out. Around 8, we'd take a break, have dinner and work until early in the next morning. We'd wrap it up around 2 in the morning.

"It was the first time we were away from New Orleans to start a record. It helped the band focus on the task at hand. There were a couple of days we had rainstorms. One day lightning struck a tree while we were playing."

Creative lightning struck on the album's title track, co-written by border radio devotee Dave Alvin. Hodges had the core of "9 Volt Heart," based on scenes from his childhood in Sebastopol, Calif., north of San Francisco. "I couldn't finish the song," Hodges says. "I took a trip out to L.A. to see Dave to see what we could do. We worked on a couple of songs and that was one of them. He came up with some lines and really put a structure to it. Dave came up with the Staple Singers line. He'd ask, 'What about this? Was it really like that?' He pulled some stuff out of me."

In a live setting, the twin saxophones of Cabral and tenor Derek Huston create the most engaging tension in the Iguanas. After majoring in music at Duke University, Huston landed in New Orleans, where he began sitting in with the Iguanas. Cabral says, "It wasn't a conscious thing, but we were fans of the harmonies a couple of horns can generate. Like all the Stax stuff and the Tejano bands with that groovy horn harmony. I grew up playing music with my father in his band in Omaha [Neb.]" The elder Cabral deployed trumpet and two saxophones in his band the Don Juans, who still play around Omaha.

"Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart" also includes a '60s doo-wop-meets-Morphine ballad in "Yesterday," a gently rolling road ballad ("The First Kiss Is Free") and a couple of mindless dance songs ("Flame On," "The Liquor Dance") that should please Buffett fans that the band has cultivated. Buffett signed the Iguanas to his now-defunct Margar-itavillle imprint after New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival producer Quint Davis took him to see them.

Hodges says, "Buffett made some suggestions, which we never really listened to. For the most part we were left to do what we wanted to do. We're trying to shy away from the [Buffett] references, although it helped us get out in a lot of ways. But in a lot of ways it also put us in this category of the 'beach party' band. Granted, we are a dance band and we like it when people come to dance at our shows. But that's not our main thing."

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