The subdudes started out as an afterthought.
“I think it was just a whim to do something different,” Tommy Malone recalls. “But then I think we realized it was something unique.”
The first show as the subdudes grew out of a sense of frustration that fans weren’t getting the Continental Drifters, a guitar- and keyboard-heavy rock ‘n’ roll band that featured future subdudes Malone, John Magnie, Johnny Ray Allen and Jimmy Messa and a rotating caste of drummers.
“It all came out of a night where we, the Continental Drifters, played at (a former music venue called) Jimmy’s. … We had three or four people come tell us, ‘You’re really too loud,’ ” Magnie says.
“It was one of those things we’d practice and we’d get all this stuff together, and then you’d play it, and it just wasn’t that well-loved. We were trying to be something avant guard sorta edgy. I think we were trying to be edgy, and we just ended up being loud.
“Me and Tommy were up at the bar after that, talking, saying, ‘This ain’t working. … We should just do a gig’ it was sort of a hostile feeling ‘we’ll just do a gig and be really quiet, we’ll be really subdued that’s what they want.’
“The idea just came right then and the word ‘we’ll be subdued,’ ” Magnie says.
Malone agrees, “We looked at one another and said, ‘That’s the name!’ If we could just be a little more ‘subdued!’ ”
* * *
March 16, 1987, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime magical events that surprised everyone.
The idea was simple: Perform melodic, acoustic music. Focus on harmonies. Use as sparse instrumentation as possible. Tipitina’s billed the group that night as “John Magnie and the Subdudes.”
The lineup was Malone and Allen on acoustic guitars, Magnie on accordion and Steve Amedée Allen’s roommate on tambourine.
“We were all best of friends,” recalls Amedée, who grew up in the small town of Edgard, La., with both Malone and Allen. “We had worked on each other’s recordings saw each other at each other’s gigs. We knew from that that we had a pretty darn good musical chemistry.
“We did a couple of little rehearsals at Tommy’s house in Algiers although the rehearsals were nothing like the gigs,” Amedée says.
One of the things, in particular, that evolved at the gig and beyond was Amedée’s tambourine style.
“Somehow or another the tambourine developed,” Malone says. “That first night, it wasn’t what it is now. We hadn’t really mic’d it and turned it up really loud.”
In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1991, Malone recalls the origins of the tambourine sound: “We were practicing for the very first subdudes gig, and I had this old funky tambourine with cheap skin on it that had been down in the place where we used to rehearse.
“When we were first rehearsing, Steve started tapping on it with a kitchen spoon one of those wooden jobs. He was still using that spoon the first time we played at Tip’s," Malone told the Dispatch.
“Amedée seemed to be the magic ingredient,” Malone says today. “The simplicity of his drumming, and the addition of his voice he’s a great harmony singer. … It was the simplicity boiling all the stuff down to the least common denominator, focusing on a song instead of a lot of noise.”
Many of the songs that would later be associated with the subdudes had already been written and had been part of the Drifters’ repertoire. But, at that first subdudes gig, the songs were transformed.
“We had the songs that were the basis for the subdudes ‘One Time,’ ‘Need Somebody,’ stuff like that,” Magnie says. And “that material is what we played then the more melodic stuff that night as the subdudes.”
“We performed a lot of the same music that we’d been doing, but with this other style, … this little warm acoustic style, and people just loved it.
“All we had to do was follow the blueprint that had been laid upon us,” Magnie says.
* * *
But if they were ever going to do more than play occasional gigs for a handful of fans, the guys figured they would have to leave town. All four had already been in bands that had shown promise but for whatever reason hadn’t lived up to their potential.
“We had contemplated moving several times,” Amedée told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1990. “We had discussed going to New York or Los Angeles. And John, who’s from (Denver), felt we could come up here and play more up here. The idea was just to play gigs … make some money and then move to Los Angeles,” he said.
Magnie recalls he pushed for Colorado.
“We were talking about moving to Italy for while they always love you in Europe,” Magnie says. “Then we were going to move to New York we knew what that scene was like. Then L.A. And I thought if we came to Colorado, we could get work doing our original material.
“I think we knew if you take something out of New Orleans and put in a different place, it just does well. It’s more appreciated,” Magnie says. “In our case, it showed us what we were how we were the same and how we were different from other New Orleans bands. I think it really helped us pull together our style of music.”
In October 1987, the entire band moved to Fort Collins.
“We all packed it up, Beverly Hillbilly-style. I bought a Ford LTD from Steve’s girlfriend for $200, hooked a U-haul trailer to it, and we all took out together,” Malone recalls.
“John had gone on a month earlier to find some apartments. We all showed up, all lived on the same block. Painted our name on this Ford LTD, drove around town, advertising ourselves, and played Sunday nights regularly for a year,” Malone said.
Finally, the band got some attention from some guys in Boulder, which led to some contacts in Los Angeles. By the end of 1988, three labels were interested in the band, all bidding to host the subdudes. The band signed with Atlantic.
* * *
A year later, the band’s self-titled debut album was released, and the band hit the road in earnest. A sophomore effort, “Lucky,” followed in May of 1991 on EastWest, a subsidiary of Atlantic.
“Lucky” it wasn’t, and in the spring of 1992 the band flew to England to record with legendary producer Glyn Johns what would've been their third album. But by then Atlantic was beginning to have cold feet.
At the record company’s urging, Amedée plays a full drum kit on the recordings. But even with that concession, there were still problems with EastWest.
“It was peculiar over there,” Amedée told the Denver Post in 1994. “We’d get started and then there’d be difficulties in getting Glyn his money.”
Johns wasn't amused, Magnie recalls.
“We’d been recording for two weeks and they hadn’t sent Glyn his money. He got disgusted and shut down recording for a day, and we kind of went into a major depression,” Magnie told the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette in April 1994.
The subdudes finished the CD, but returned home to find Atlantic unenthusiastic, Malone says.
“We had finished it we had a complete record. Got back, and … they didn’t release it. We got dropped,” Malone recalls.
Several months later, the band found a home with High Street, a subsidiary of Windham Hill.
“They bought the tapes (of the completed album from Atlantic), but we decided we weren’t all that happy with most of what we’d done. We went back and recut a bunch of things,” Malone said. The first thing to go was the drum kit.
The resulting album, Annunciation, would finally be released in March 1994 and would become one of their most popular. (It features five recordings saved from the London sessions.) The melancholia that pervades some songs may hint at the stress the band was feeling.
* * *
By this time, two of the subdudes Malone and Allen had relocated back to New Orleans. The distance between them and the Colorado contingent, along with personality (and personal) problems not to mention record company woes were adding to the strain on the band.
One more studio album was finished released in late February ’96. But by then, Malone and Allen had begun working with another former Continental Drifter, drummer Kenneth Blevins (known for his work with John Hiatt), plus Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin (who in the past had toured with the subdudes) in a project they dubbed Tiny Town. Though “Primitive Streak” racked up impressive reviews, was warmly received by fans, and reached #15 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers” chart, it was not enough. By August, the band announced the fall shows would be their last.
Everything came to an end prematurely it turns out on Nov. 2, 1996, at Tipitina’s, where it had all started nearly 10 years earlier.
“This summer,” Magnie told The Times-Picayune shortly before the break up in 1996, “it progressed from taking a vacation to allowing people to pursue other things to ‘Let’s put a finality to it and go out as friends.’”
“The basic feeling was to not push something as temperamental and personal as a musical venture past the point of feeling good. It always felt alive and healthy musically. The first time that was not so, it scared us, so we would rather lay it down for a while,” Magnie told the New Orleans newspaper.
“A while” turned out to be nearly six years.
* * *
There were a few one-shot subdudes reunions almost always in New Orleans around Mardi Gras or Jazzfest. The shows, as expected, were wildly received by fans starved for anything subdudes-related, but the band made it clear there would be no permanent regrouping, yet.
But the occasional reunions provided hope that some day things would fall into place. There were other hopeful signs Malone often sat in during Magnie and Amedée performances when they were all in the same town, plus he recorded some guitar parts for a CD released by 3 Twins, the band Magnie had formed with Amedée and Tim Cook. And Magnie would sometimes sit in during Malone’s solo performances.
By the fall of 2001, the time finally seemed right. The spark was a Tommy Malone Band show in Denver at the Soiled Dove.
“We spoke, and I said, ‘Let’s get together. Come down and bring your accordion.’ It was just a matter-of-fact thing he got up and played,” Malone recalls
“There were some old fans in the front row they were going apeshit,” Malone says with a laugh.
Over the next few weeks and months, the phone lines between New Orleans and Fort Collins were abuzz as Malone, Magnie and Amedée first broached, then finalized, ideas for a reunion. They opted to simply merge their current bands, forming a six-piece that would have a serious rhythm section: two bass players, a percussionist and a drummer. They wouldn’t exactly be subdued.
Unlike in previous years, this reunion from the outset was envisioned as a long-term proposition. The focus would be on new material, not just a rehashing of the oldies: Malone’s and Magnie’s post-subdudes repertoire would receive equal if not greater treatment as the old songs. Plus, they were determined to create new music together.
To emphasize the break with the past, they would call themselves simply The Dudes.
* * *
Finally, in February 2002, The Dudes Malone, Magnie and Amedée plus newcomers Tim Cook (bass, vocals), Jimmy Messa (guitar, bass, vocals) and Sammy Neal (drums) tested the waters with three shows, kicking things off with a highly anticipated gig at the House of Blues in New Orleans.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive:
“The magic and wonder of the pre-breakup subdudes was in full force. … The Dudes, obviously enjoying themselves, performed a near-perfect set,” Offbeat magazine declared after the Dudes’ Feb. 7, 2002, show in New Orleans.
* * *
After a year, however, the band decided to scale down to a five-piece and reclaim the name “subdudes.” Drummer Sammy Neal was let go.
One of the main reasons for the change was a desire to get back to the stripped down, rootsy sound for which the subdudes had been known.
And there were other reasons: some fans were not making the connection that The Dudes = the subdudes. From the beginning, management and booking executives had pleaded with the band to use the “subdudes” name. Eventually, Malone, Magnie and company decided they could find more gigs, attract more fans and garner more attention from the music industry if they resumed touring as the subdudes.
Indeed, within months of the change, the subdudes were playing more and bigger gigs and were being courted by several record companies. They eventually signed with Back Porch Records, a division of Virgin.
In April 2004 eight years after their last studio CD the band emerged with “Miracle Mule,” a collection of new material that was embraced by fans as well as critics and that spent several weeks near the top of the Americana charts, the radio format that had emerged during their absence to describe the rootsy sound the subdudes had pioneered.
The subdudes continue to tour, harder than ever, and are winning over a new generation of fans who missed out the first time.
“There’s a genuine spirit of creativity,” Malone says today. “It’s fun, it’s exciting. It’s truly fun. We enjoy making music together, we’re enjoying writing together. It’s fun as hell to me.”
Article by Richard Russell; © 2004 Richard E. Russell.
All photos are promotional shots, except where noted. They are not for publicaiton. Photo credits are listed when known.
Live recording from Maryland is courtesy of Riche Eyring.