Hadacol - Bad medicine, better music

Hadacol, the infamous mid-century patent medicine, was, according to one imbiber, a "murky brown liquid that tastes something like bilge water, and smells worse." It was 24 proof, though, so in a South where dry counties remained fairly common, it sold as many as two million bottles of "dietary supplement" a month, especially after its creator sponsored the Hadacol Caravan, the last of the great touring medicine shows. The 1952 edition featured everyone from Bob Hope to Hank Williams. A shot of Hadacol, the Kansas City rock band, packs a pretty good kick of its own -- and is surely one hell of a lot better for you, too. "For a couple of reasons, the Hadacol name just seemed to work for us," singer and lead guitarist Fred Wickham says. "Of course, it's a Hank reference, but it also wasn't something everybody would know and come to with a preconceived impression of the band. And there's a lot of cool old piano songs associated with it too: 'The Hadacol Bounce', 'The Hadacol Boogie'. One story I heard is that Jerry Lee Lewis' first public performance was 'Hadacol Boogie'. So all the connections were just perfect for us." Following in the footsteps of KC cult favorites such as the Rainmakers and the Starkweathers, Hadacol pulls far and wide from rock 'n' roll's tradition of twangy roots. Whether quoting a Steve Earle riff, borrowing the grand, spacious feel of Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone", or covering Joe Turner or John Prine, the band clearly knows its history -- pay attention at a Hadacol show and you'll catch fleeting snippets of the Boss and Bo Diddley, "Hey Nadine", "How Far To Little Rock" and "Luther Played The Boogie Woogie". But Hadacol also has the potential to make a little history its own. That potential emerges primarily in the band's original songs, evenly divided between Fred Wickham and his younger brother Greg, who onstage alternates between marching in place at rhythm guitar and pounding away at the piano. "We write separately, but we give each other a lot of feedback. In fact, we shitcan each other's songs all the time," Greg says, "and if we don't both like a song it usually gets left behind." The results are some uncommonly good songs, peppered with lyrical images of stunning clarity -- say, "All this barroom smoke feels like a girlfriend's arms"; or even better, "A one-way ticket and a foolproof plan/The gospel truth in your right hand." Even numbers that at first sound like something more slight -- the rural strut of "Big Tornado", the swirling "It'll Work Out Fine" -- will often, upon closer inspection, hide deeper truths. With drummer Scott McCuiston locked into a stone-cold groove and bassist Richard Burgess pointing skyward and pumping his fist like his head is filled with some particularly rockin' voices, Hadacol is a real blast to catch live, though the band can fall into the sort of too-typical cowpunk moments that don't do their fine compositions any favors. On Better Than This, the band's Checkered Past Records debut, they've both filled out the songs and opened them up, providing more texture, nuance and space, thanks to occasional flourishes of pedal steel, mandolin and organ. The album was produced by the band and the Skeletons' Lou Whitney in Whitney's Springfield, Mo., studio. "Lou's biggest contribution," Greg remembers, "is he's really good at arranging. Some songs he had a lot to do with, some not much at all. But putting the drum and bass together? God, he's a rhythm guy and so good at it. And he was always just great at helping us get exactly the feel and sound we wanted." The album's centerpiece, "Poorer Than Dead", feels and sounds just right. The Wickham's harmonies yearn for something beyond words as the rhythm section pulses insistently, finally pushing the brothers to find just the right words after all: "Pennies from heaven won't fill empty pockets/You can't be any poorer than dead." Lines like that burn as much going down as the band's patent medicine namesake would suggest. But then they leave you feeling somehow better too.