Barnes, Hokkanen & Rubin

During a conversation with the Dallas Observer last year about the Bad Livers' soundtrack for Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys, which he produced and performed on, Mark Rubin said he and longtime musical partner Danny Barnes were not really a band, but more like banjo-wielding Dust Brothers. Of course, he's right, even if that's giving Beck-Beasties producers John King and Mike Simpson too much credit; King and Simpson's collective memory is too clouded with malted hops and bong resin to reach back much further than 1972. Rubin and Barnes are the real Dust Brothers, digging through crates of old 78s until 1872 is close enough to see in the rearview mirror. Since they seem to dig a little deeper each year, aka the mad cat trio (recorded in 1993) is likely too modern for their current tastes, which, truth be told, haven't been current since a Roosevelt was president. And it doesn't matter if you're talking about Teddy or Franklin.

Rubin and Barnes are the rare musicians who can perform traditional music without sounding like they're afraid to break any of the notes. They don't treat anything they play as someone else's music, whether it's a set of klezmer standards performed by Rubin's sideline Rubinchik's Orkestyr, the Bad Livers' attempt to outfit Bill Monroe with a leather jacket, or the various jazz bands on The Newton Boys disc that featured the duo. Yet they forced a major label (Sony Music Soundtrax) to release what is likely their most ambitious album -- The Newton Boys' mix-and-match collection of Smithsonian Folkways recordings and redos -- proving just how pure their intentions really are. Sure, Rubin and Barnes might mess with tradition, but as long as they are around, no one else will.

Whether they would admit it or not, Rubin and Barnes have more fun on records like aka the mad cat trio than they do when they're looking at the past through the future's distorted lens, such as on the Bad Livers' latest, last year's Industry and Thrift. A collaboration with guitarist-fiddle player Erik Hokkanen recorded live on University of Texas at Austin student-radio station KUT-FM (90.5), aka the mad cat trio sounds like a disc that no one was ever meant to hear, the kind of back-porch pickin' session that happens when musicians play simply for the love of the music and nothing more. As all three take turns singing, you might as well be huddled around a campfire with Rubin, Barnes, and Hokkanen as they swap songs and stories, romping their way through pared-down Western swing ("Billygoat Boogie"), getaway-music workouts ("Ol' Slew Foot"), murder ballads ("Down in the Willow Garden"), and just about everything in between ("Gold Rush"). Only Rubin and Barnes could make a record this old sound so new. Or maybe that should be the other way around.

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