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Published: 2006/03/15
by Brian Gearing

Behind the Levee – The Subdudes

Back Porch

Somewhere, in the nameless backwoods of America, there are those who live the life that summertime festival jumpers have dreamt of ever since they first heard “Teach Your Children.” But rather than temporary tent cities on a plot of co-opted earth, these lucky souls find their own spaces far from civilization, emerging from their earthly Edens only to replace whatever necessities may have been exhausted in the course of the last week, which was most likely occupied by chopping wood, handwashing clothes, playing music or cooking meals. These are the Subdudes’ “mud people”— '60s holdovers that once wandered America’s blue highways like Wyatt and Billy, but instead of ending in a ball of flame and mangled motorcycle parts somewhere in Florida, the mud people’s movie simply fades out under the shade of an ancient oak tree.

It sounds too good to be true because it is. Though the Subdudes don’t actually live in that world, the one they imagine on Behind the Levee exists all the same, even if only in their own happily-ever-after. Theirs is the world of the old new South, vaguely hinted at in Mark Kemp’s Dixie Lullaby the one before Dr. King was murdered, when some white and black musicians still worked and played together; the one that wouldn’t have scoffed at hippie philosophy simply because it might smack of that modern-day plague known as liberalism; the one where Southerners had enough confidence in their own belief in hospitality and Christian forgiveness that they didn’t need TV preachers to tell them the difference between right and wrong; but more than anything, the world that exists Behind the Levee is one where there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun.

Such is the classic, Southern, white soul spirit of “Papa Dukie & the Mud People,” a Sunday afternoon sermon of tolerance, even if only for the sake of voyeuristic entertainment. As the mud people set up camp behind the levee, some call for the sheriff to shut it down, but Papa Dukie wonders what’s wrong with “wearing beads, painting rainbows and singing love is a beautiful thing.’” Besides, the girls are taking their clothes off, Papa “likes the view” and mama “wants to hear that song.” While the hippies may one day turn to disco and cocaine, for now, “It was all colors; it was all love; and it was all right.”

“One Word (Peace)” takes the mud people’s message and internalizes it, and while the sentiment may be clich it shows just how poignant songs about peace and love can be when they’re not swallowed up by a 15 minute guitar jam and clouds of pot smoke. The Subdudes are true believers — those rare children of the '60s that never let go of the innocence that most grew to call nat- and they preach their gospel through a sweet soul sound from somewhere between Muscle Shoals and Motown.

The Queen of Soul herself recorded her seminal album in Muscle Shoals, and “Next to Me” shows why she chose Alabama over Detroit. Without the candy coating of a Motown studio, this Southern soul serenade sounds twice as sweet, even if the lyrics may not be fine-tuned to radio standards. Tommy Malone struggles just enough on vocals to add some sincerity, as does Steve Amedee, who channels Rick Danko heartbreak on the closer, “Prayer of Love.”

Though it ends on a bit of a downer, Behind the Levee is at heart a front porch record about better times past and the possibility of better times to come. “Let’s Play” name drops enough childhood games to make a kindergarten teacher’s head spin, and if the lyrics don’t work, the country zydeco bounce and swirling guitar lick will. The closed doors of the “Social Aid and Pleasure Club” will always swing wide open; all you have to do is knock. And as long as there are people searching for it, the Subdudes will be there to remind us of what was, what could have been, and what it can be.

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