Monthly Archives: June 2010

Embracing the Man in Black

Embracing the Man in Black

A local drummer abandons his instrument to sing Johnny Cash.

June 24, 2010

As Birmingham’s premier drummer and “gun for hire,” Leif Bondarenko has played thousands of gigs with dozens of bands in a career that spans four decades.

Bondarenko first achieved renown 30 years ago as drummer for local legends Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits. By the mid-1980s, he had formed the critically acclaimed Primitons with Leisure Suits bandmate Mats (pronounced “Mots”) Roden. He worked regularly with the late blues vocalist Topper Price throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, building a résumé that includes drumming for Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall, Charles Neville, and Rick Danko of The Band. He’ll soon be touring with Taylor Hicks.

While still earning a living playing for a number of local bands, six months ago Bondarenko stepped out from behind the drum kit and strapped on an acoustic guitar to tackle the role of lead singer for his Johnny Cash tribute band, Cash Back. His vocals are eerily close to those of the Man in Black, and the ease with which he fronts the band will surprise those who know Bondarenko only as a drummer. There’s nothing pretentious about his performance, even when he hoists the instrument under his chin and stares down the neck of his guitar in classic Cash style, as if aiming the guitar like a shotgun.

Local drummer Leif Bondarenko is a not a country music legend in real life, but he plays one on stage. (Photo: Marc Bondarenko.) (click for larger version)

“I’ve been studying as much live footage of Johnny Cash as I can find,” Bondarenko says, “trying to get his moves down and trying to get as close as I can to the way he sings. I’m concentrating on learning to play acoustic guitar because right now I’m just holding the guitar, and for me that’s a little bit of an embarrassment (laughs).” Until he masters the instrument, however, Bondarenko is reassured by footage of Cash sometimes using the guitar as a prop instead of actually playing. “That makes me feel a little bit better about what I’m doing. But mark my words, I will be playing acoustic guitar, I’m determined to make this thing fly,” he guarantees.

“If I can find an audience for Johnny Cash—be it private functions, corporate gigs, or casinos—that’s what I’m really looking to do. As far as I know, I’m the only one that’s doing a Johnny Cash tribute anywhere near here, and I sing Johnny Cash better than anybody does.”

Cash Back includes Don Tinsley on bass and David Keith on drums, with Gary Edmonds and Tim Boykin swapping out guitar duties, depending on who is available for a particular night. Tinsley has played bass with Bondarenko dating back to 1985, working with him in the Primitons as well as Topper Price and the Upsetters. Tinsley says he was surprised and impressed with Bondarenko’s ability to pull off a Johnny Cash routine. “You know, nobody ever sees it coming,” he says, laughing. “I played with the guy for 20 years and never would have thought in a million years [he could do a Cash act]. When he’s really focusing, it’s sorta spooky.”

Bondarenko recently recorded his first solo CD, Man Named Jesus, four self-penned gospel compositions sung in a haunting, distinctive baritone. Currently the drummer in a band that plays weekly services at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, an Episcopal church in downtown Birmingham, he credits his religious music affiliation with giving him the confidence to become a vocalist and songwriter. “The church has helped me a whole lot in getting my vocals together, ’cause I sing in church all the time,” he explains. “I was going through some really tough times and I’m telling you, man, some of those [gospel] songs I wrote in 15 minutes. You can call it divine intervention or whatever you want, but somebody else was involved in it other than me. And I thank my guardian angels for that. Some stuff you get handed to you, and other stuff, you gotta work for it.”

Bondarenko began drum lessons at age 7, later playing for bands without names in elementary school talent shows when he was just 10 years old. “Our main competition was this guy who was a really cool juggler, he could juggle like crazy!” he says, laughing. He spent a couple of years leading the drum line in the Vestavia High School marching band. In 1976, he secured his first professional job at age 16 playing four nights a week with organist Dickie Bell Walzak’s combo at the long-defunct Downtown Club in Birmingham, doing standards such as “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Mack the Knife.” He laughs as he recalls that “the band members were all old enough to be my parents.”

“Leif’s a really good drummer. He’s had two periods of being a good drummer but they’re for different reasons,” Don Tinsley says. “Back in the ’80s when he was in the Primitons, he was doing this really, really strong beat stuff. We used to call him ‘Bam Bam’ because he was beating the crap out of the drums. At the same time he had the heavy rhythm going, though, he had all these little articulated rhythms going on, too. He used a large metal water can from some old nuclear fallout shelter in the Primitons.” Ten years later, Bondarenko’s style reflected his years playing with Topper Price, Tinsley explains. “Leif got a lot more involved with the dynamics of playing when he was with Topper. Instead of having just a relentless beat going on, he changes his style now; he’ll slow down a little bit and speed up a little bit in different parts of the songs and do a lot more accent kind of stuff. But he can still play both styles.”

Bondarenko recalls the metal container that functioned as a drum. “It was a metal reservoir [for potable water] that they had in nuclear fallout shelters from the ’60s. When I got it, it was army green but I painted it black,” he says. “I’ve still got that thing. My wife asks, ‘Hey man, why don’t you get rid of it?’ I told her I’m never getting rid of it (laughs). Anything that comes from my past musical lives is staying with me, all the costumes, all the percussion instruments. Because you never know when you’re gonna want ‘em again.”

His old percussion instruments and stage costumes won’t be making appearances with Cash Back. Bondarenko dresses in black when performing his Cash show, and he is dedicated to the singer’s simple approach onstage. “I want people to feel like they’re getting the real deal and a good show, and to be listening to somebody who deeply cares about Johnny Cash’s material and the way he presented it,” he says. “Because I’m trying to make it as real as possible without acting like I’m Johnny Cash.” He admits that recalling the lyrics can be a challenge. “Most Cash stuff has tons of lyrics, and getting over that hump has been the hardest thing. My recall has gotten better,” he says. The classic “I’ve Been Everywhere” had the most difficult lyrics to memorize. “It was the hardest one, because it doesn’t necessarily tell a story, it’s just spouting off town names really fast. And it’s hard to breathe when you’re doing that, so I’ve had to learn how to breathe when singing it,” Bondarenko says. “But a song like ‘A Boy Named Sue’ tells a story, so it’s a little easier to remember than others.” &

At Last, Grocery Shopping Downtown

At Last, Grocery Shopping Downtown

Birmingham welcomes a new grocery in the heart of the city.

June 24, 2010

The influx of bistros, bars, and restaurants in downtown Birmingham over the past few years has brought life to an area that once threatened to become a ghost town. Much of the current surge in business traffic has occurred on Second Avenue North. At long last, a proper grocery of sorts is open to serve downtown loft dwellers and anyone who works in or visits the city center.

Antonio Boyd opened Mamanoes Grocery Shop (next to Baldone Tailoring, on the corner of 23rd Street and 2nd Avenue North) at the site of the former Gypsy Market on Thursday, June 17. Boyd, whose résumé includes a stint at a Whole Foods distribution center in Maryland, says his new venture will offer “an experience for the neighborhood; a simple, plain, but unique place to shop.”

A graphic rendering of Mamanoes’ future storefront. (Illustration: Ambient Technology Group) (click for larger version)





Boyd has been an entrepreneur since childhood. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, going back to when I was a kid digging earthworms out of the ground to sell to bait shops at country stores in south Alabama,” he says. As a teen, he arrived at school early each day to sell candy apples coated with Rice Krispies to classmates, using a corn syrup recipe passed down by his grandmother.

Mamanoes will sell wine, imported beer (including high-gravity brews), fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, sodas, juices, dog food, canned goods, and assorted paper products. Boyd says he will soon include a deli offering butcher’s cuts and sliced meats and cheeses. For those in a hurry, orders can be placed online or phoned in, allowing customers to drive to the store for curbside pick-up service. Loft dwellers walking their dogs will have the convenience of shopping as their pets are pampered by a “pet valet” service, allowing patrons to leash their dogs in a covered area supplied with fresh water and inexpensive doggie treats. Later plans for the store include delivery ($50 minimum order), and an upstairs area (a loft that Boyd calls his “tasting room”) where patrons may imbibe on the premises.

Mamanoes will eventually be open Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to midnight, and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; they’re currently closing at 6 p.m. As for Mamanoes’ funky name, Boyd explains: “It’s a tribute to my mom and all mothers out there. Because if anybody knows, Mama knows.” &

Dead Folks: Music

Dead Folks: Music

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.


January 21, 2010

Lux Interior
Since Cramps singer Lux Interior’s cause of death at age 62 was listed as a preexisting heart condition, anyone who saw Lux in action will forever wonder how he made it past 40. In that context, it’s tempting to paraphrase one of the Cramps’ signature cover tunes, “Rockin’ Bones”: his bones will keep a rockin’ long after he’s gone. That’s superfluous, however, because Lux Interior, front man for legendary rockabilly band The Cramps, was a real gone guy from day one.

Lux Interior (click for larger version)

For decades, writers have attempted to capture the essence of Lux, calling him “the high priest of a pagan rockabilly cult,” or “the maddest bad daddy of all the bad, mad daddies.” He was the mayor of Wig City, Maximum Utmost, USA, a shockabilly shaman of the shimmy and shake, or, as the liner notes to The Cramps’ Gravest Hits intones: “Elvis gets crossed with Vincent Price and decent folks ask, ‘What hath God wrought?’” At the time of his death, all the squares in the major media were making the rather desultory observation that Lux Interior sang rock and roll. They somehow missed the plain fact that he was rock and roll.

No one left it all out there on the stage like Lux. Not James Brown, or Iggy Pop, or Mick Jagger, or Jerry Lee Lewis. The show was the thing, but it was all just a way of losing his mind, that being the ultimate result of finding that new kind of kick Lux had been searching for since his early teen years in Ohio. For most of his life and career Lux Interior was rummaging through the nation’s collective garbage can (trash culture), salvaging elements of American music and reconstructing from the heap what he called “bad music for bad people.” For a complete obituary, see “Lux Interior R.I.P.” at (62, aortic dissection) —D.P.

Ron Asheton
After The Stooges broke up in 1971, Iggy Pop went to Florida and mowed lawns for a living. Ron Asheton hung around Detroit and played in a few more pioneering punk bands. It took a few years before people began to think of The Stooges as one of the great rock bands of all time. Iggy cashed in on the band’s reputation, but he spent his career trying to replicate the primitive rock riffs that Asheton came up with for songs like “T.V. Eye,” “No Fun,” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Asheton even became a legendary guitarist despite switching to bass after the band’s first two albums. (That move made him part of a brotherly rhythm section with Scott Asheton on drums.)

Ron Asheton and Iggy Pop. (click for larger version)

Asheton made some acclaimed albums with bands like Destroy All Monsters and the (sort-of) supergroup New Race. He still spent most of his life paying the bills with his artwork—and the occasional cameo in low-budget horror films. Asheton enjoyed proper rock stardom later in life when The Stooges reunited to record The Weirdness in 2007. (Ex-fIREHOSE member Mike Watt played bass.) The Asheton brothers were able to keep up with Iggy to become a great live act, and the reunion paid enough for Ron to hire a personal assistant. That’s who discovered his body in his Ann Arbor home. (60, heart attack) —J.R.T.

Jim Dickinson
Memphis-based album producer Jim Dickinson established a reputation as one of the top session players in the music industry, where he hung out with rock ‘n’ roll royalty. Bob Dylan saluted Dickinson as a “brother” in 1997 while accepting a Grammy for the record Time Out of Mind, on which he asked Dickinson to play piano.

Dickinson was a pioneer of the Memphis sound—a blend of blues, country, pop, and soul. He recorded with Sam Phillips at Sun Records and then formed The Dixie Flyers—a house band for Atlantic Records artists such as Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. Dickinson’s reputation for working with difficult personalities included producing the haunting Big Star pop classic Sister Lovers. His sons, Luther and Cody, have achieved success with their band The North Mississippi All-Stars.

He played elegant piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” because Stones pianist Ian Stewart refused to play minor chords. Later that night, while listening to a playback of the song in a Muscle Shoals studio, Dickinson was astute enough to make sure that Keith Richards knew he had the only joint in the room. Richards no doubt stayed close by, guaranteeing Dickinson an appearance in the documentary Gimme Shelter that was being filmed at the time.

Dickinson never pulled punches when critiquing the Stones. In a January, 2002, interview in online publication Perfect Sound Forever, he recalled taking his sons to see the Stones in the 1990s. “I took my kids to see their last American tour, ’cause they’d never seen ‘em, but it wasn’t a real Stones show—the kick drum was so loud, it sounded like a fu**in’ disco band; and I don’t care who that bass player is, he’s not playing the [correct] parts. The keyboard parts—don’t get me started on them. That no-talent, lounge-playing motherfu**er they’ve got playing keyboards is not even coming close.”

The epitaph he chose for himself reflects his awareness of the eternal life of recorded music: I’m just dead, I’m not gone. (67, died while recuperating from heart surgery) —Ed Reynolds

Gordon Waller
Waller was a Scotsman who made up one half of the acclaimed 1960s acoustic pop duo Peter and Gordon. Their number one hit “World Without Love” was one of several penned by Paul McCartney for the pair. (64, heart attack) —E.R.

Dan Seals
There was never anything hip about England Dan & John Ford Coley. Songs like “Nights Are Forever” and “I’d Really Like to See You Tonight” were so forgettable that a picture of the Bellamy Brothers was mistakenly used on the back of their first compilation album. England Dan still went on to a successful solo career as Dan Seals, scoring hits on the country charts that include “God Must Be a Cowboy” and “Bop.” His last studio album was released in 2002, but there will probably be a posthumous release of duets that Seals recorded with brother Jim Seals—who is the Seals of Seals & Crofts. (61, cancer) —J.R.T.

Ellie Greenwich (click for larger version)

Ellie Greenwich
A lot of people were surprised that the co-writer of “Chapel of Love,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” and “Leader of the Pack” was only 68 when she passed away. Singer-songwriter Ellie Greenwich thrived in a time when teen anthems were written by actual teens. She was an early shining light of the Brill Building pop factory, with other credits including “Be My Baby” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” Greenwich also enjoyed some pop stardom as a member of The Raindrops (with her then-husband and frequent collaborator Jeff Barry) and later on as a solo act. She was also a pioneering female record producer while launching Neil Diamond’s career with hits like “Cherry, Cherry” and “Kentucky Woman.” Greenwich made it to Broadway when her work was used as the basis for the 1980s stage hit “Leader of the Pack,” and she passed away while still in demand for both pop tunes and commercial jingles. (68, heart failure) —J.R.T.

Sky Saxon
He was a fraud, but Sky Saxon was a magnificent fake who was ultimately consumed by his own pose. The lead singer for The Seeds was best known for 1960s garage-rock anthems like “Pushin’ Too Hard” and “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” The band had a typically short career, but Saxon went on to spend the 1970s and ’80s making catchy hard rock with flower-power themes. His move from young punk to spiritual type was accompanied by a name change to Sky “Sunlight” Saxon. That amused contemporaries who remembered him as a misogynistic creep out to cash in on the Sunset Strip.

Sky Saxon (click for larger version)

Still, Saxon had probably fried his brains on enough drugs to be almost sincere in his delusional insistence on rock stardom. He got lucky when the Los Angeles underground music scene revived 1960s psychedelia in the mid-1980s. That made him fashionable enough to work increasingly erratic live shows right up to his death. (71, heart failure) —J.R.T.

Jay Bennett (click for larger version)

Jay Bennett
Jay Bennett joined Wilco as its bassist in 1994. That was around the time that the band released the A.M. album and became proper critic’s darlings. Bennett was then kicked out of the band during the travails that surrounded Wilco’s recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—as captured in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. He went on to a solo career that was more faithful to Wilco’s country-psych vision than any subsequent album by the band. He was always more entertaining, too. Bennett was frequently complaining about his hip pain, so he might be one of those rare musicians whose overdose was truly an accident. (45, painkiller overdose) —J.R. Taylor

Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons (click for larger version)

Eric Woolfson
The Alan Parsons Project was always a faceless act, with bearded producer Parsons mattering more than vocalists like John Miles, Arthur Brown, and former Zombie Colin Blunstone. That was partly savvy management by composer and co-founder Eric Woolfson, who wrote the songs for the assorted concept albums that made the band a staple of FM radio. Woolfson stayed behind the scenesfor the early albums like Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I Robot, and Pyramid. The scholarly looking Woolfson finally took over lead vocals on some later singles, including the 1982 hit single “Eye in the Sky.”

Woolfson went on to try his hand at stage musicals, staging “Freudiana” in 1990. (His bid to release the soundtrack album as a Woolfson solo project broke up his partnership with Parsons.) His second musical was “Gaudi,” which revisited an earlier Alan Parsons Project album about modernist architect Antonio Gaudi. Woolfson stayed busy with his stage career but marked 2009—and the end of his life—with The Alan Parsons Project That Never Was, which compiled lost songs that Parsons had rejected as sounding too commercial. (64, cancer) —J.R.T.

Jon Hager
Jon Hager shot to the top of the death pools after twin brother Jim passed away in May of 2008. The Hager Brothers, of course, were best known for their long stint as toothy and wholesome “Hee Haw” stars. Jon racked up one more birthday than his brother, but was one of 2009′s earliest celebrity deaths. (67, heart failure) —J.R.T.

Jim Carroll (click for larger version)

Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll once looked at a bald guy and said, “He looks like Kojak.” That was a typically useless witticism from the lamest punk/poet in a world filled of moronic punk/poets. By the time Carroll was making his Kojak references, he had moved on to shallow celebrity journalism for Interview magazine. That was after years of coasting on the literary success of 1978′s The Basketball Diaries, where he had written about his fascinating adolescence as a young junkie and male prostitute.

That book’s success was followed by Carroll’s attempt to become a rock star with three dull albums in the 1980s. The debut was Catholic Boy, which garnered some attention with a song called “People Who Died.” Carroll’s songs for the 1995 film adaptation of Basketball Diaries weren’t nearly as good. By the time that he released his last rock album in 1999, he was another old hippie complaining about how New York City wasn’t dirty anymore. He compared modern Times Square to Disneyland. Nobody had heard that one before. (61, heart attack) —J.R.T.

James “The Rev” Sullivan
It wouldn’t be a Dead Folks issue without the death of an idiot musician. James “The Rev” Sullivan was both the biggest name and the most talented musician to make this year’s list—even if he did procrastinate until December 29, 2009. Actually, cause of death hasn’t been confirmed for the fine drummer of the crappy metalcore band Avenged Sevenfold. We can only look back fondly at Sullivan’s constant talk of how much he loved drugs, including a magazine article where he boasted of his massive cocaine habit. Sometimes it’s better to be a poseur. (28) —J.R.T.


The Troubadour’s Champion

The Troubadour’s Champion

June 10, 2010
The former Vestavia Hills acoustic music venue known as the Moonlight Music Cafe has reopened in Bluff Park as Moonlight on the Mountain. The new Moonlight is a casual room, much more suited to acoustic folk singers than its former neon-lit location. The room brings to mind a Baptist church fellowship hall, with Sunday School-style wooden chairs and a few tables scattered close to the stage. After dark, there’s no finer place to be. The city code forced the original blue Moonlight Music sign indoors, but when night falls, it’s easily spotted from Shades Crest Road.

Birmingham’s Act of Congress sold out their recent show at Moonlight on the Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Keith Harrelson.) (click for larger version)



Kevin Welch played the inaugural concert at Moonlight in April. Gretchen Peters, who wrote “Independence Day” for Martina McBride, also packed the house recently. Shows are BYOB, and no tickets are sold; instead, donations are accepted at a suggested price. “Most people have no problem being told what it ought to be,” says owner Keith Harrelson. At most shows, patrons are encouraged to donate $10 to $15, depending on the act. Show times are usually between 7 and 8 p.m. Harrelson, a committed fan of the singer/songwriter genre, had been involved with the Small Stages organization, which hosts concerts by lesser known touring acts in private homes. When the current venue became available, Harrelson grabbed the opportunity to stage shows before larger audiences. So far, the venue has received a warm reception, selling out several of the shows on its selective calendar.

Moonlight on the Mountain is located at 585 Shades Crest Road, in the same strip mall as the Bluff Park Diner. The venue is smoke-free and cash only. Attendees may bring a small cooler. 243-8851,