Strummin' with the Devil

B-Sides walks a Mean Street, is saved by the Apostlez.

Mean Street|Ruzzian Roulette

The usual conflict among Van Halen fans in St. Louis is the age-old Dave vs. Sammy argument. But with the recent postponement of the band's show here — on top of years of inner-band drama, cancelled tours, lackluster recorded output and even that ill-conceived Gary Cherone thing — it feels more like the Van Halen faithful are frankly just pissed off at the band in general.

Thankfully, local VH tribute act Mean Street might just be offering just what real fans have been craving: a band whose focus is on doing justice to Van Halen's music. A recent chat with Mean Street lead singer Tony Ingracia sealed the deal.

B-Sides: What is the history of Mean Street? How did the project get started?

Tony Ingracia: Through singing with Johnny Rock-Itt I met some friends that knew Bobby Taylor, who is our drummer. They called me and said that Bobby wanted to audition me for a Van Halen tribute. I was pretty busy at the time, so I told him I wasn't sure if I could get involved. But he said, "Just come down and see the band. You don't have to say yes or no." So I went down there and the first thing I heard was Chuck [Reusnow] doing a couple of riffs and I was like, "This sounds really great." When we got done that night I was like, "How can I say no?" They were that good. I was just really impressed with the chemistry between all four of us.

I hear that you're in a Journey tribute band as well. How much of a challenge is it to be able to switch gears from singing in the style of Steve Perry to David Lee Roth?

That's always been the thing I've been good at, copying and mimicking people. Trying to sound like David Coverdale or Billy Squier or Joe Elliott...and every time I go to sing a song, I try to mimic exactly the way they sound. It's always been something that I've just been able to do.

Mean Street sticks strictly to the DLR-era Van Halen. Is that a taste decision or just not wanting to take on the task of covering all of the material?

We wanted it to take the listener back to when they first heard Van Halen. We're trying to cover all the licks, the screams, the jumps and even down to things that were said on stage, the things that a true Van Halen fan would know. But that was a very conscious decision from the beginning that we wanted it to be the original, old-school Van Halen.

There is a certain audience who would be more likely to go see a tribute that is strictly doing DLR-era VH. Are you guys anti-Sammy?

Honestly, I personally think Sammy and Van Halen wrote some of the best songs ever. But I mean, when I first heard Van Halen with David Lee Roth there was nothing like it, the screams, the guitar style. But when Sammy came along into the mix, he added singing to the formula. He was more melodic and also was more involved with the music and guitar work as well.

I've been told that your guitarist Chuck Reusnow has never played in bands before this project. Is that true?

Chuck is a diamond in the rough. He's got it, but yet he doesn't know it. He's one of those guys that's been in the basement practicing, bought all of Eddie's gear, tries to sound exactly like him — and he does. When I found out that he's never played in front of people, I was shocked. He's literally been in [the] basement practicing for twenty years. He really pulls it off, though, and the rest of us have been in bands for so long that we can really show him the ropes and give advice about playing live shows. And when you find somebody who can actually play like Eddie Van Halen, you hold onto him! — Shae Moseley

7 p.m. Friday, November 16. Pop's, 1403 Mississippi Avenue, Sauget, Illinois. $10. 618-274-6720.

Act of the Apostlez

What originally started as a Michael Jackson-inspired narrative music video for the song "Ruzzian Roulette" by local hip-hop troupe the Apostlez has evolved into an experimental feature-length production of the same name. The result, co-directed by St. Louis natives Falaq and Rukahs (the latter an Apostlez member), is a film about AIDS and the African-American community that's raw, innovative and engaging.

Just as intriguing as the images on screen is the film's soundtrack, which is dominated by, but not limited to, St. Louis-flavored Southern rap. Parts of the title track are reworked at various points in the film as electronica, blues and experimental jazz. Morrell "Izrael" Roberts, who also stars as the central character, Day Day, scored the film, and local musician Evan Rosen contributes guitar for the jazz pieces.

Also included is the entirety of the original music video on which the film is based. The song "Ruzzian Roulette" is a progressive Southern rap number in the vein of CunninLynguists about the perils of HIV and the need for safe sex. Much like the film as a whole, the song is simultaneously engaging and off-putting. The chorus sounds something like Schoolhouse Rock in the 'hood, as the rappers spit in deep baritones, "Have you played the game of Russian roulette?/ Unprotected sex, all it takes is one bullet." The video, says co-director Falaq, was inspired by "Thriller" and Public Enemy's video for "Night of the Living Baseheads."

While planning the elaborate video, which is based on the true story of Darrell "Bossman" McGee, a St. Louis man reported to have infected more than 100 women in the St. Louis area with HIV in the mid-'90s, the directors decided the topic of AIDS and African Americans was feature-length fodder. Shooting scenes throughout the metropolitan area, they weaved together documentary footage of roundtable discussions on AIDS (some of which take place in local barbershops), experimental performance art segments featuring a suicidal Rukahs slathered in red paint, and several loosely connected narratives.

While there was a script, Falaq describes how several scenes were largely improvised. "I came from hip-hop and freestyle so I think my approach to directing is similar," he says. "I tell the actors, 'Make me believe you.' Fuck the lines. If I don't believe you, the lines don't matter."

The most prominent story line deals with McGee, renamed Day Day in the film, but the most interesting and controversial aspect of the plot is the treatment of "the down low," the taboo subject of closeted gay African-American males, paired here with strong Christian imagery.

"This film is supposed to shock and get attention and use language to get attention. We're aware of the stereotypes in the film, but it's there as a message," Falaq says, "We must not judge, we must get knowledge on this crisis."

— Keegan Hamilton

Ruzzian Roulette screens as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival, 5 p.m. Thursday, November 15. Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard, University City. 314-995-6270. $6.

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