Back in the day when MTV actually played music videos and Rolling Stone magazine wasn't pocket-sized, a Southern California band named Lone Justice gave birth to a splendid hybrid of reckless alt-country rock.
It was 1985 when the band released their eponymous first album, which I still own on glorious vinyl. Fronted by the magnificently manic Maria McKee, who was heralded by esteemed Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert HIlburn as "the most exciting combination of raw talent and commercial potential to emerge from the Los Angeles rock scene since Tom Petty," Lone Justice fizzled out shortly thereafter.
It was eight years later when I had the opportunity to meet McKee and see her perform as a solo artist, but never caught her group live in its prime, a regret that ranks right up there with missing the Beatles, Hendrix and Queen.
That unforgettable year of Lone Justice might one day be remembered for the actual birth of another cowpunkabilly rock 'n' roll queen. The Santosuosso family welcomed a baby daughter they named Suzanne Alisa on January 20, 1985, in Cleveland, Ohio. Now 27 years old, she makes up one-half of Honeyhoney, who feel like the second coming of Lone Justice.
"Holy shit! Thanks, guys!"
The lead singer now known as Suzanne Santo (right) seemed genuinely stunned by the enthusiastic reception she and Honeyhoney co-founder Ben Jaffe received two songs into their set as support on James Morrison's headlining stop at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado,
on May 8.
They were only two songs into a 34-minute set, just finishing "Back to You," one of their popular tour fixtures that is nowhere to be found on their two long-playing studio releases.
Even though Honeyhoney was the opening act, college students, aging hipsters and a few graybeards formed an impressively long line down 13th Street more than an hour before the doors opened, either sensing greatness in their midst or hoping to catch the Next Big Thing before they fade away. Crowds don't often start filling up the Fox until after the first group has finished.
The groundswell of support is growing for these sharp-looking pair of platonic friends since the release of Billy Jack, their star-making record released through Lost Highway. That's the cool country branch of Universal with an impressive roster of artists that includes Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson and the Jayhawks. After critically acclaimed stops at SXSW and Coachella, Honeyhoney continues to attract a beehive of activity around them.
They'll start the summer festival season over Memorial Day weekend at Sasquatch among a formidable group of artists, including Jack White, the Shins and Bon Iver, support Sheryl Crow in July, then cap off the month at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival.
That's quite a heady agenda for a pretty pair so unpretentious that they walked their way from the cozy Fox lobby through the crowd to the stage, smiles on their faces and instruments in their hands. If only they could resolve this love/hate relationship with capitalizing/lowercasing their group name.
Santo and Jaffe (who's a year younger) met and started their self-described "longass, hardass journey" by writing songs together in Los Angeles, but aren't bound by any geographical or genre-specific limitations. Santo, with a smoky, sultry voice, certainly has her own distinctive style, while combining the best qualities of McKee's kinetic West Coast energy, Shelby Lynne's outlaw country rowdiness and the cool Midwest inflections of Over the Rhine's Karin Bergquist.
A former model and actress who appeared with Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Williams in Imaginary Heroes in 2004 and TV series including Law & Order and Without a Trace, Santo has McKee's charming appeal and charismatic confidence, along with a cheerful girl-next-door personality.
One of a long list of performers who've fallen victim to Colorado's mile-high-plus altitude, she was able to poke fun at herself after a blazing version of the sharpshooting ode to the vibrator, "Little Toy Gun". It's one of the signature songs off their self-released debut album, the catchy but far less rootsier First Rodeo.
"I'm not gonna talk about the altitude because everybody talks about the altitude. I'm just gonna go
like this ...," Santo said, making rhythmic inhaling/exhaling noises into her mic that simultaneously could attract all the impressionable young dudes and repulse dirty old men turning jealous of her huffing/puffing capabilities.
Jaffe (left), a fast-talking Northeasterner whose mind apparently works as fast as his mouth during playful exchanges with Santo, interjected, "Nothing like heavy breathing in a microphone ... creeping it out."
Such banter captured the hearts of an audience that already seemed enamored by the resonating sounds, intertwining harmonies and evocative lyrics, with colorful lines such as "Oh, I don't want to make you cry / Use my thoughts as an alibi" and "Real life love sinks me like a stone" painting the picture better than a graphic novel.
Jaffe, whose other instrumental contributions on Billy Jack included piano, drums and vibes, churned out twangy Gibson grunge on smoldering barn burners such as "Thin Line" and "Come on Home."
Santo, at ease whether playing the banjo on "Ohio" or violin on the soulful "Don't Know How," urged listeners to discover their "inner hillbilly" while Jaffe plugged one of the group's tour sponsors, Short Mountain Distillery, which makes 105 proof "authentic Tennessee Moonshine."
Not that any liquid encouragement was necessary this night. A backing band that included bassist Patrick Taylor and Cleveland homeboy/drummer Gerry Porter provided the pounding heft to a show that ended with a foot-stomping Santo slam-dancing into a fearless Jaffe.
The lone disappointment was that there was no encore. Honeyhoney, perhaps not wanting to be rude Americans by upstaging their British visitor, skipped the scary-good "Angel of Death" (see the killer video below) and "Let's Get Wrecked," a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that the band surprisingly dissed as a "Bob Dylan ripoff" during their off-the-wall Joe Rogan Experience podcast in March.
Instead, the plan, as Jaffe expressed it, was "to pack our shit," then fulfill the post-show duties of almost any opening act that considers a strange night at the Days Inn to be a luxury.
There were long lines at the merch table near Fox's front door, where satisfied customers grabbed $20 vinyl copies of Billy Jack or stared at $15 undies on sale as part of Jaffe's experiment in American idolatry.
Santo, still wearing her short black dress with the tiny white polka dots, kept fans engaged afterward by signing autographs or conversing pleasantly more than an hour after the start of Morrison's white-soul-brother-from-an-English-mother act.
Perhaps it's unfair to use that example and an eight-song live performance as a gauge to predict enduring success for a couple of players leading a dual existence. But the smart money here is on Honeyhoney making more of a lasting impression than their groundbreaking predecessors from L.A.
Somehow, lone justice will prevail.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Honeyhoney and James Morrison at the Fox Theatre in Boulder.
See Honeyhoney's video of "Angel of Death" from the album Billy Jack:
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas