Burnin' Down the House

The slinky, swingin' rockabilly of the Hep Cat Boo Daddies emerges from the open door of the Poor House in Fort Lauderdale on a recent Saturday night, drawing the attention of passersby. What is this mutant strain of full-throttle surf-blues? It sounds like there's one wild party going on.

Indeed there is. Inside the dark club, men in suits dance with twirling Deadheads. A group of flush-faced young men with beer mugs in their hands whoop in unison. Goth-girls and B-boys get into the groove. It's like David Lynch's vision of what a local bar should be. Up on the tiny stage at the back of the club, the Hep Cat Boo Daddies are working hard to set the mood.

Joel Da Silva, the young guitarist at center stage, rips into a vicious blues riff that's tinged with the melancholy of country music. When he sings he has the swagger of a young Elvis. You can hear the time-honored traditions of rhythm and blues in both his voice and guitar, but his energy is closer to punk rock. Beside him stands Sean "Evil" Gerovitz, a sinister-looking dude in dark shades hammering at his bass. At the rear of the stage sits the bespectacled Randy Blitz, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Phil Silvers. Yet Blitz towers over his '52 Gretsch drum kit, bashing the cymbals from on high.

"They're one of our biggest-drawing bands," says Jay Hemple, co-owner of the Poor House. "We get people in here from 21 years old to their late 40s and early 50s, all the way across the board. Everyone cross-digs them."

That's because the Hep Cat Boo Daddies cross-dig every species of rock music known to man, be it punk-, country-, or surf-rock. According to Blitz, "Our shtick is just to rock in your face. It's blues-based with surf and rockabilly, but it's not just blues. It's a mixture of a lot of really groovy things. It's high-energy, and we drive it home hard."

Home is the Poor House, the first venue the band ever played. Last year Hemple was looking for a decent house band to book on Monday nights. He was approached by Da Silva, the 22-year-old guitar wunderkind who had already made a name for himself with a local punkabilly outfit called the Underbellies.

Local music fans may remember the Underbellies -- which included Blitz, Gerovitz, and Billy Velvet on lead vocals -- as the Cinderella story of South Florida last year. The band had barely even formed when Columbia Records signed them to a record deal and put them in the studio with Pat DeNunzio, of the Smithereens, who served as their songwriter and producer. But, as with so many young bands, the Underbellies buckled under the major-label pressure, and they broke up this past October.

"At that time I didn't know what was going to happen, because we had a promising record deal with Columbia that went haywire," says Da Silva, whose offstage manner is surprisingly soft-spoken. "But I've always enjoyed playing with Sean and Randy as a rhythm section. So when Jay gave me the chance to do the Monday nights, we got this together. Pretty soon we became sort of like the house band."

Da Silva, Gerovitz, and Blitz soon began revving up the band's trademark blend of rockabilly, surf, punk, and blues. They named the band after an Underbellies tune penned by Gerovitz and took all of their frustrations out on stage.

"After the breakup of the Underbellies, we didn't waste any time," says Blitz. "We just wanted to get out and play and have fun and not have to rehearse endlessly, as we had been doing with the Underbellies. We just became a band on stage during those Monday nights."

The 44-year-old Blitz has been part of the South Florida music scene for quite a while. A native of Brooklyn, he turned pro at age fourteen, schlepping his drum kit to bar mitzvahs during the summer of 1968. He arrived in Miami in 1972 and gained a reputation for playing any gig that came his way: funk, rock, blues, punk, jazz -- whatever. He spent the next two decades playing with local bands such as Freewheel, Screamin' Sneakers, the Rockerfellas, Texas West, Slyder, and Voidville (fronted by the well-known local singer Diane Ward).

After a quarter-century of close encounters with fame (he's jammed with Ron Wood, Bernie Worrell, and Jimmy Page), Blitz thought he had a shot at rock 'n' roll stardom with the Underbellies. Gerovitz thought the same thing. He'd joined the Underbellies after years of touring as a bodyguard for Sebastian Bach, Guns n' Roses, and Ozzy Osbourne. During his stint as a bouncer at the Button South, he watched Blitz beat his kit to a pulp in various bands and knew instinctively that, together, they'd make a rock-solid rhythm section. For Gerovitz the Underbellies were a charmed band from the start.

"We had four rehearsals, and we signed a record deal. It was a magical thing," Gerovitz recalls. "We were in Billboard, Rolling Stone -- we were total publicity hogs."

But the Underbellies went belly-up when Billy Velvet left the band. Still, Da Silva, Blitz, and Gerovitz were determined to keep playing together. All they needed was a venue.

"I've known some of the members of the Hep Cat Boo Daddies for a few years," says Hemple. "When the Underbellies fell through, Joel asked me if he could do a blues thing on Monday nights. I said I'd give him a couple of weeks and see if it works. And it worked. People were diggin' them, so we started putting them on weekends."

Da Silva believes the band's balls-out approach to roots music is a major factor in its success. Although this is his first outing as a frontman (he's played with the Regulators and Jr. Drinkwater & the Thirst Quenchers, among others), Da Silva is determined to give it everything he's got.

"I've always wanted to front my own band, and a lot of people encouraged me to do it," he says. His singing has a bluesy feel, though Bono, Frank Sinatra, and Los Lobos have all influenced him. "Vocally, I'm trying to sound like myself, but I'm still developing my style," he says.

Where Velvet had been a cartoonish frontman full of vocal bluster, Da Silva takes a more melodic approach to singing. It's a welcome element in the group's slash-and-burn bombast. For all their bar-band rowdiness and raw physicality, the Hep Cat Boo Daddies offer engaging hooks, and it's up to Da Silva to bring those hooks to the forefront.

"We're writing more originals, and I want to do more modern, radio-friendly blues," Da Silva says. "I want people to know that there is an ass-kicking roots-rock band in South Florida."

Blitz explains, "I think people like the band because it's fun. We don't take it all so seriously; we just rock out hard and see where it takes us. I think Joel plays with a lot of fire and emotion. He's just screaming those notes out of his guitar. He's a very high-energy player, and he's a good showman. Sean is big and bad and solid as a rock. And I just drive the whole thing home hard."

But even Blitz is at a loss to explain the band's growing fan base. "People keep coming back for more," he acknowledges. "People come see us on a Saturday, and the same people come back to see us on Monday. I ask them why, and they usually say they like us 'cause it's a really groovy thing."

The Hep Cat Boo Daddies play every Monday night at the Poor House, 110 SW 3rd Ave., Fort Lauderdale. They'll also perform Friday, June 12, and Saturday, June 13. For information call 954-522-5145. Two other upcoming gigs will take place Thursday, June 4, and Thursday, June 25, at City Limits, 29 SE 2nd Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-279-8222.

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