Johnny Dilks and His Visitacion Valley Boys

Thursday, March 2; Off Broadway

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Johnny Dilks' conversion to country music is familiar as an archetype: Punk in California in the '80s, then rockabilly, then -- recalling all those Ted Daffan and Bob Wills LPs the codger at the record store used to spin -- Dilks launched a 13-piece Western-swing band but found that San Francisco was short on old-school country singers. No, he was never struck down and blinded, but he knelt before Tex Ritter and Hank Thompson and took to the yodel like Saul to the Christ.

Too often, we think of yodeling as a lark, but done well -- in the throbbing throat of Dilks, for instance -- it's the sound of a man with his soul quivering in his gut, shaking with such fear and passion that upon offering his deepest song to the world, it just comes out in a messy, glottal, inarticulate speech of the heart: YODEL-AY-HEE-OHH-DE-LAY-HE-OHHHH. The beloved on the other side of the hill laughs her head off and makes for the shack to download some Primus MP3's.

Forget the Swiss; yodeling, as defined by Jimmie Rodgers, is one of the great American art forms, the sound of a "hobo kicked off a freight in Tucson or Albuquerque," as Alan Lomax once wrote. Dilks combines that sound with a crackerjack dance band -- including Paul Wooton on take-off guitar, Billy Weston on pedal steel and Brian Godchaux on fiddle and mandolin -- who can play a straight-up Texas shuffle, a Bakersfield scorcher, even a spare, Louvinesque lament (it's no surprise that Dilks and his Visitacion Valley Boys backed Charlie Louvin in 1998).

Best of all, Dilks mines the deepest and weirdest shafts of country music, digging up traditionals like "Grey Eagle" or forgotten hits like Jimmy Davis' "Jelly Roll Blues." He sings apparently clichéd lines like "Old Joe's dead and gone/He stuck around too long" -- and then you realize it's Joseph Stalin he's yodeling about. Along with Big Sandy and Wayne Hancock, Johnny Dilks is one of freshest voices on the retro dance-hall scene.

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