Since ska — retooled for the mosh-pit set — has moved to the mainstream after more than three decades on pop culture’s back burner, there’s no reason the equally enduring rockabilly genre can’t do the same. The ReverendHorton Heat delivered that message, and delivered it emphatically, during a hyper-charged set that turned Roseland’s dance floor into a bizarro-world mix of swing dancers and crowd surfers.
Led by the charismatic, impeccably coiffed (Reverend) Jim Heath — whose salacious vocals and offhandedly flashy guitar riffs spice up even the band’s lesser songs — the trio walks a fine line between conviction and camp. Then again, the ’50s icons that clearly inspired the Dallas native never shied from theatricality, and Heath displayed plenty of that — crooning while flat on his back or picking out solos while perched atop Jimbo Wallace’s standup bass.
The crowd certainly responded to the Rev’s schtick, but the rhythms really reeled them in, from the spry Western swing of “Bales of Cocaine” to the proto-thrash of “400 Bucks” to the languid lope of “It’s Martini Time.”
While less familiar, the handful of songs culled from the trio’s new Interscope album “Space Heater” — particularly the singalong “Jimbo’s Song” — evoked a similarly strong response. Heath’s evangelical delivery might have had something to do with that, as might the band’s awareness that too much progress might kill the (rockabilly) cat.
Although the band does tamper with tradition by doubling tempos and inserting techno-styled samples into a few tracks (with poor effect), the Rev is certainly more faithful to rockabilly tradition than, say, the Stray Cats. Heath sticks to the fundamentals in terms of topics — namely sex, substance abuse and Satan (or some combination thereof) — with a tenacity that would do Jerry Lee Lewis proud.