YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Mystery Train Goes Its Own Way : Rootsy Band Welcomes Exposure in Japan While Waiting for Its Time in Grunge-Dominant U.S.

March 10, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

After 10 years of enforced patience and persistence, Michael Ubaldini is finally about to see tangible evidence that those virtues are sometimes rewarded.

Since 1984, Ubaldini has been kicking around the Orange County rock scene, fronting various bands while developing a rootsy sound that takes its cues from such classy sources as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Memphis soul and Memphis rockabilly.

Until now, only one small piece of purchasable music has resulted from all that effort--a vinyl single Ubaldini cut in the mid-'80s with his first band, the Earwigs.

But next month, the Fountain Valley resident's new band, Mystery Train, will emerge with its first album, "706 Union Avenue," named for the Memphis address of the famous Sun Studios that gave rise to Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. The group plays Friday at Club 5902 in Huntington Beach.

Still, as he sat last week in a favorite cafe in his hometown, Ubaldini was well aware that his foreseeable future will require even more patience and persistence. Mystery Train's album is being released only in Japan, where the four-man band recently was signed by a major label, Toshiba/EMI.

In a U.S. market heavily tilted toward grunge-alternative bands dishing Angst and fury, an act such as Mystery Train, with its classic sources, clean sound and generally exuberant tone does not have the record industry clamoring to get on board.

Ubaldini, 27, maintains a cheerful outlook. He spoke with more amusement than scorn as he related his latest frustrating run-in with the domestic music business.

A scout from a major label recently showed interest in Mystery Train, "but they wanted us to completely change," said Ubaldini, who recently took to performing under the stage name Michael Anthony, substituting his middle name for a last name that he says people tend to flub.

"They wanted me to put on flannel," he said. "But I'm going to do what I'm going to do. Shoot, I'd rather look like Jesse James than Paul Bunyan." With his tousled pompadour, black leather vest, torn T-shirt, and jeans with a key chain jangling at the hip, the lanky 6-footer is cut from a rock 'n' roll outlaw mold that was set by the '50s rockabillies and updated by the Clash when the British punk band came on the scene in the late '70s.

"This is the way I've always been," Ubaldini said. "I liked the way Gene Vincent and those guys (from the rockabilly era) dressed, and the Hamburg-Beatles look. I used to get a lot of flak for the way I dressed. I'd go into clubs in Orange County and people would openly mock it. It would just add more fire for me to keep going."

Ubaldini says he harbors no grudge against grunge for being dominant: "I'm glad these bands inspire groups to play in garages. And it means that now we're more the alternative. We're facing some of the same obstacles bands were facing in the beginning of the alternative scene. But walls were made to be climbed."


Mystery Train's leader has a good store of equipment for scaling barriers in the business. His singing voice is a reedy but grainy tenor that can simultaneously convey both a sense of fun and a shading of wistfulness. He is a strong lead guitarist in the straightforward, roots-conscious tradition of John Fogerty.

Ubaldini also writes songs prolifically: "If I ever dry up, I'd still have several albums ready to go," he said. "In the last year and a half, I've accumulated 75 good songs."

Ubaldini's songwriting interests range from wry, colorful songs about the eager chase after gorgeous women, to depictions of Americana that he etches with visual details in an attempt to create a strong sense of place.

Among his best efforts are "Mardi Gras," a song that captures the good-time charms of Louisiana life, "Down Home Sweet Girl," an indelibly catchy appreciation of a lass so winsome she couldn't possibly exist, and "Civil War (Across the River)," a stormy Romeo-and-Juliet tale that strives for mythic dimension.

"I want to write images, where you can almost see the dirt or smell the grass of the areas I'm writing about," he said. "There's so much havoc and crime today. I don't want to be even more depressing. I'd rather remind people of the beautiful things about America. To me, a bridge over a muddy creek is great."

Tellingly, when it came time for a photo session, Ubaldini already had his spot picked out: a stone wall that fronts a strawberry field in Westminster, a small patch of rural Americana in the middle of a typical Orange County crush of shopping strips and housing tracts.

"I've been able to write songs, maybe as an escape from Orange County," Ubaldini said. "You shut your mind off and boom --I can be in Louisiana or any place I want to be."

Los Angeles Times Articles