DEVIL’S ADVOCATE

Back in the mid-90s, there was a vibrant underground scene in Jacksonville. Well, as underground as it can get in this Northeast Florida burg we call home. Dante’s Inferno, Spike’s Dog House, The Imperial and Moto Lounge were the center of most of the activity, with bands mixing genres and causing general havoc. I was fortunate enough to have brought my band from Orlando to Jacksonville during this time, and fell in with many of the bands that composed the scene. One of those bands was Hank El Diablo.

We played many shows with the boys in Hank and got to know them pretty well. Hank founder and chief songwriter Rob Nader (who has gone by many names over the years — including Hank El Diablo, Henry R. Nader, The Devil) and I share a love of horror cinema and on-stage theatrics, which made our bands a comfortable pairing. Let’s just say things got a little weird. So it is with a sense of great nostalgia that I revisit Hank El Diablo’s debut 1996 release, Hank El Diablo Sings the Gospel. The record unfolds like a perverted cabaret circus, opening with the song “The Demon” and closing with the “The Hank El Diablo Love Song.” You can see where this is going.

“The Demon” is a down-tempo creep-out involving a nameless “She” who attracts the alley scum to her “dark corners.” Nader’s proclivity for strange jazz mixes with drummer Brian Jenkins’ marchy swing and his brother Ken Jenkins’ synth-noise drapery to create a swirling bit of madness. It’s all very controlled, very channeled, very, let’s say, composed. It’s a nice set-up for the rest of the album, which spirals into seedy atmospherics and big-top oddities.

“Dirt-Garden Love” invokes the “fist bucket jaw,” whatever the hell that is, and the “Ratman,” whoever the hell that is. This is filthy swing for pervs, and not knowing the whole story leaves the imagination free to wander. “Exordium” is a loopy instrumental, its shifting time signatures and tremolo guitars upping the creep factor and appropriately heralding the advance of the next track, “King Clown.” “King Clown” is a crazy slide into the foggy, self-imposed seclusion of the titular clown. On this one, Rob’s father, Larry, hops on sax with Flip Robison on trumpet.

Track 6, “Praise the Lard,” was always a crowd-pleaser — well, it pleased the limited crowds our bands would draw, anyway. Opening with a sermon rendered in noisy delay, like a Southern tent evangelist might deliver while tripping on heavy doses of hallucinogens, “Praise the Lard” remains as offensive today as it was back then. The refrain “Jesus is Lard” repeated over a sleazy funk groove underpins the rest of the tune, and I can remember chanting along from the audience.

My favorite song on “Sings the Gospel,” however, has always been the sing-along “Old Fucker,” a country swing with out-of-tune guitars that would not have seemed out of place on an early Ween album. The chorus: “That old fucker ain’t never gonna die, never gonna die, never gonna die … lest he takes his own.” He’s a bloodthirsty sex killer at a hoedown. He’s a child murderer and recluse, who hears the voices of his victims singing right along with him. It’s great and horrible stuff.

Nader still makes music, sometimes as Hank El Diablo, sometimes in other incarnations. He’s also gotten into video production and filmmaking. And he’s married and has a kid now, too. The rest of the Diablo gang has gone in different directions, the Jenkins brothers remaining involved in the local music and art scene. And there have been pseudo-Hank reunions over the years, but nothing can really capture the way it used to be here in Jacksonville, when a bunch of weirdo bands would get together and do our best to shake up a sleepy town, if for only a few moments in the dark confines of a short-lived hole-in-the-wall.

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