Heartland Heroes: Although Forced to Regroup, the BoDeans Remain Comeback Contenders

Heartland Heroes: Although Forced to Regroup, the BoDeans Remain Comeback Contenders
Traci Goudie

They may not have invented Americana music or even redefined it, for that matter, but the BoDeans were responsible for one of the genre's rare mainstream hits, courtesy of the driving anthem called "Closer to Free." Thrust into the top ten after being tapped as the theme song for the television show

Party of Five

, they spawned several respectably selling albums, a tour with U2, and a "Best New Band" designation from

Rolling Stone

Over the years, a number of theories have been floated as to how the band chose its name. Even when asked about its origins, singer/songwriter/chief mainstay Kurt Neumann concedes that there's been a lot of conjecture about the source from which it was derived. "Sam [Llamas, the band's cofounder] said it came from the Beverly Hillbillies," he recalls, referencing the show's dimwitted character Jethro Bodine. "But for me, it was the combination of Bo Diddley and James Dean, two indelible rock 'n' roll images."

Indeed, when the BoDeans regrouped in 2004 after an eight-year hiatus, it marked the resurgence of a great American rock 'n' roll band, one that's always proudly borne the soul, spirit, and essence of the nation's heartland. Still, it's been more than two decades since the band abandoned its major-label tie with Warner Bros., an association that helped boost its profile to such dizzying heights. Now, a new album -- aptly dubbed American Made and released under its own auspices -- offers hope for reclaiming past glories. True to its title, it reaffirms those elements that define the BoDeans dynamic: the riveting vocals, the assertive yet seductive delivery, and an innate passion that elevates each song to searing proportions. 

American Made was released quickly on the heels of last year's Indigo Dreams and in the wake of Sam Llamas' sudden departure, which makes the BoDeans' decision to regroup with Neumann at the helm seem something of a leap of faith. "It's a very American-sounding record," Neumann suggests. "For the first time, I really embraced the idea that BoDeans is a roots rock band. And what I mean is, if roots rock is the combination of folk, blues, country, folk, and pop, then that is where we reside. Comfortably. And happily." 

Clearly, then, Neumann appears all too willing to carry the banner forward, and if he's concerned about having to go it alone without his longtime co-conspirator, there's no indication of it as far as the new album's concerned. Rather than opt for a solo statement, he gathers old acquaintances Michael Ramos (an original BoDean) on keys, longtime bassist Ryan Bowman, and new recruit Warren Hood on fiddle while boldly moving into new terrain. 

"Michael and I had been working on new material for a couple of years," Neumann explains. "And I had been doing the last several BoDean records alone in the studio. So we had gotten used to working without Sam around. And Noah Levy has been playing drums with the band for years. So I just asked a few of my good friends to step in and give me a hand going forward. And for the first time in many, many, many years, it's felt really positive and natural and good. I couldn't be happier with the new guys that have jumped onboard to help out." 

While songs such as "Jay Leno" (which, by the way, makes scant reference to the late-night icon), "All the World," and "American" hew to their heartland stance, "Everything You Wanted" plucks more than a hint of zydeco, "Don't Bring Me Down" brings in some blues, and "Walk Through This World" and "Flyaway" tap into a jaunty Celtic spirit. A cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" adds a reassuring blue-collar connection. Taken in tandem, they offer proof that the BoDeans have had no problem reclaiming their groove. 

"The songs on American Made are our first songs to be road-tested before recording since the first record," Neumann explains. "I believe it's a very necessary step in making records. For years, I tried to convince other people of this but couldn't. You really need to see this band live to understand what I'm talking about. It's been almost a year now, and everywhere we go, the crowds have been extremely supportive. Dancing and singing. It truly feels like a second wind." 

Despite the loss of his musical partner and former colleague, Neumann hints that the dynamic in the band is much improved and that as far as he's concerned, the changes were definitely for the better. 

"I'm happy playing music again after many years of not being so happy," he confides. "And I think that's good progress." 

The BoDeans perform at 8 p.m. Friday, June 15, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $15. Call Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000, or visit ticketmaster.com.

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