Authentic ’70s-style guitar boogie is hard to come by these days, unless you’re hearing it from grizzled classic-rock die-hards like ZZ Top or George Thorogood. But on its self-titled, full-length debut CD, Lions in the Street does a worthy job of rekindling the party-hearty sound that was blasting out of jacked-up Camaros in the lemon-gin-soaked era of 8-track tapes. “Hey Hey Arlene” is a three-minute, high-octane jolt of 12-bar boogie that makes you wonder if its makers were raised in a household where Status Quo were worshipped as gods. But that’s not quite the case, as singer and lead guitarist Chris Kinnon points out during a chat at an upscale eatery in Kits.
“Our dad worked at a country radio station in Regina,” he explains between sips of ale, “and when the promo guys would send records the program director would give him all the rock 45s. So he had an outstanding record collection, everything from, like, the Fendermen through Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and all that Sun Records–era Elvis stuff.”
The early exposure to ’50s hip-shakers notwithstanding, it wasn’t until Kinnon and his younger brother, Lions drummer Jeff, hooked up with guitarist Sean Casey in 2003 that they moved toward a raggedy boogie-blues vibe, í la the Faces and the Stones. Along with bassist Enzo Figliuzzi—a holdover from the Kinnon clan’s previous jangle-pop outfit, Mount Pleasant—they hit what should have been the big time when, in 2004, they were signed to Chad Kroeger’s 604 Records in Canada and independent powerhouse TVT Records for the rest of the world. But although the TVT contract resulted in sit-downs with such legendary producers as Bob Ezrin and Todd Rundgren, it turned out to be a doomed connection for the band.
“It was bad, it was long, and it probably should have killed us,” recalls Kinnon with a pained sigh. “I don’t think there’s anybody who was ever signed to that label that doesn’t have a bad story about it.”
While inked to TVT, the band also secured management by Allen Kovac, who has steered the careers of such acts as Mí¶tley Crí¼e, John Mellencamp, and the Bee Gees. “He and Steve Gottlieb, who owned TVT, just didn’t get along at all,” recalls Kinnon. “They fought, and we were in the middle.”
Trapped between the feuding industry bigwigs, Lions in the Street soon found itself in a legal battle with TVT that carried on for years and didn’t end until the company declared bankruptcy in 2008.
“We spent tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys to try to get out of the deal that we spent practically our whole life trying to get into,” reports Kinnon.
A full-length album that the quartet recorded for TVT in L.A. with producer Dave Cobb (Waylon Jennings, Chris Cornell) was never released, but in 2008 the Lions hooked up with local knob twiddler Shawn Cole, whose credits include You Say Party! We Say Die!, Bend Sinister, Wintermitts, and Painted Birds. Utilizing mostly Mushroom but also Blue Wave and FaderMaster studios, Cole produced, engineered, and mixed the current 12-track effort.
“He’s a young guy and he’s pretty close to being an engineering-production genius,” raves Kinnon, who has also worked with such high-profile producers as Mike Fraser and Matt Hyde. “Shawn is as smart as any of those guys, and he can get any sound you want.”
Kinnon and company recruited a number of local musicians for their party-rock opus, including pedal-steel ace Tim Tweedale, saxophonist Bill Runge, and Dave Vidal, who played keyboards but whom Kinnon describes as “probably the best blues guitar player in Canada”. They also got some help on the country-tinged closer, “Truer Now”, from banjo player Chris “Dunner” Duncombe, program director at 99.3 the Fox. But that doesn’t mean that “Truer Now”—or any Lions in the Street tracks, for that matter—will score airtime on the station.
“We’re not a CFOX band,” asserts Kinnon. “I think they’ve made that clear to us. And [CFMI on-air personality] Robin LaRose is a friend and a fan, but they’re not gonna play us either. Those playlists are absolutely stuck in 1979 or whatever. It is what it is.”
The lack of support from local radio is just another hurdle that the members of Lions in the Street have come to expect. But after all the music-biz crap that they’ve waded through, they’re trying to stay focused on the future, and you can sense that determination in the CD’s aptly titled opening track, “Moving Along”, which sets the tone of the album with its rampaging dual-guitar attack and boogie-woogie piano.
The last four years haven’t been a complete downer, though.
“There have been great moments in there,” notes Kinnon, “like seeing North America. And good experiences like dinner with Todd Rundgren and breakfast with Bob Ezrin. Those things don’t make up for the disappointment of going through that drama with a record label, but putting a record out on your own does.”