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O.C. POP BEAT : Barrelhouse's Soul Men Pay Respects to Redding


HUNTINGTON BEACH — Seated at the dining table in his apartment, a pouch of roll-your-own tobacco beside him and a quart of Jim Beam at the ready, Steave Ascasio had girded and provisioned himself for some serious yarn-weaving on the theme of how he came to be the singer in a suburbanite band that plays authentic-sounding Southern soul music.

"I'd call it fate on my part," Ascasio said expansively, leaning back and starting at the beginning. "For some strange reason, when I was about 7 or 9. . . ."

Sensing a myth in the making, Ascasio's mild-mannered band mate, Mark Cerneka, decided to puncture it with a quip before it ballooned out of hand: "When you were working in the cotton fields?" the clean-cut guitarist asked wryly.

Ascasio smiled.

"No cotton fields involved. I don't think anybody would believe me if I said that."

The impressive thing about Ascasio and his band, Barrelhouse, is their knack for making music that sounds as if its creators might have firsthand knowledge of cotton fields, or at least of the ghetto barrooms and Chitlin' Circuit theaters where the grittier forms of soul music took root more than 30 years ago. Instead, Barrelhouse's roots are in the subdivisions of Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach, where Ascasio grew up.

Somehow, this band of white guys in their 20s has come up with a close approximation of the sweaty, tightly played, freely wailing mid-'60s Memphis soul sound made famous by Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Rather than cover the standard repertoire of soul, a la the Commitments, Barrelhouse (which plays Friday at Roxbury South) plays Ascasio-penned originals that sound like lost tracks from the Stax Records vault.

"I don't think you can train to be a soul singer," said Ascasio, a husky-voiced, huskily built 25-year-old with long sideburns and wavy, unkempt dark brown hair. "I don't want to project myself as egotistical or conceited and say I'm a natural, but some people say either you have it or you don't, and I guess I just have it."

Ascasio said the first sign that he had "it" came when he was in the fourth grade and his class sang a version of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" for parents' visitation day. While everybody else swayed to the song's "nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah" campfire sing-along, Ascasio free-lanced his own part in mimicry of Paul McCartney's frenzied soul screams: "I was the only kid going, ' Jude -ay , Jude-ay, Jude-ay, ow!! ," Ascasio recalled, complete with sung illustration.

In those days however, soul music was still in his future.

"It was Kiss, man. Kiss was the hot stuff."

Ascasio and his best buddy, Guy Laurin, would ham it up by staging Kiss concerts in their garage, complete with painted faces, homemade uniforms, as much of a light show as Christmas bulbs would allow, and lip-synced, air-guitar performances set to their heroes' records.

Ascasio credits his mother with putting him in touch with rootsier forms of rock. Before that facetious interruption about his days in the cotton fields, the singer was painting a picture of the time his mother sat him down with a double album of Chuck Berry hits and told him, "It's something you need to hear."

Ascasio said Berry, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were the most important inspirations as he and Laurin graduated from air guitars to real guitars and began to write their own songs. Ascasio was 11, Laurin 13. It wasn't until Ascasio was in his mid-teens that he discovered Otis Redding.

"Somebody turned me on to it. I don't know who, but I'm grateful for it. Everything that I write is a direct dedication to Otis Redding. He is the man. He is it. He is soul."

However, when Ascasio and Laurin formed Crawdaddy, their first serious band, the sound had more to do with redneck rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd than with soul men like Redding and Pickett. Crawdaddy became Barrelhouse in 1991, the band name nicked from a blues song by Robert Johnson.

At first, Ascasio said, "we were playing Stonesy-Black Crowes kind of stuff. It was bull. It didn't feel right."

He points to Cerneka's arrival in mid-1993 as a turning point that led away from rock sources and toward the definitive soul sound (mixed with a smattering of blues) that has become the band's hallmark.

"When Calhoun (Cerneka's performing nickname) came in, I felt I had an ally," Ascasio said. "I can get back to my original roots because he has the same roots, and he can back me up" in keeping other, more rock-oriented members close to the traditional soul and blues line the band has adopted.

Cerneka, 26, joined after answering a musician-wanted ad that read, "Bluesy rock band looking for a guitar player." He had grown up in a house full of roots music, courtesy of a mother who was an Elvis fan and a father who loved Ray Charles.

Playing soul music, Cerneka said, is "a natural progression" from his origins. But before getting back to his first love, he took an unexpected detour through punk.

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