The rock covers, which are filtered through a country mindset, are always interesting and sometimes utterly arresting. Take last week's show at the Millyard, where the Kickers shared the bill with Bill Plante and Friends. They opened with "Dead Flowers," which might bring a smile to your face if you're of a certain age,because the dark, tasty Stones nugget is rarely played and a perfect choice for this band. Then they followed it up with ... well, they didn't call out the tune, but it was familiar — achingly familiar, but equally elusive. Until the chorus. Then it hits you: Oh my God, Foreigner. "Urgent," the hokey megahit and staple of rock radio all those years ago.
"A guilty pleasure," says Frame, 49, who brings her band to Musical Soup, a day-long concert headlined by the Bruce Marshall Group, which will benefit Amesbury for Africa. "I loved that song when I was growing up — the lyrics, so passionate, that incredible saxophone." But it wasn't an easy sell when she pitched the song at rehearsal. "They looked at me like 'You're crazy,'" she says. But when they dug into what she had in mind — essentially a countrified rock tune that sounds true and real and not a joke tune — they were into it and, for better or worse, it's become an audience favorite. "It's evolutionary on my part, I guess," she says. "I'm strictly hardcore country ("real country," she says later, "not the stuff that's coming out of Nashville today," she says. Think Merle Haggard, Marty Stewart, Dwight Yoakum), but I like doing covers. It's got to be a good song. I've got to feel like I can do justice to it, do something interesting with it."
The Kickers have been together for two years but, for Frame, the band is a kind of comeback for a career that never fully materialized in her youth. She bounced around a lot as a kid, living a nomadic, counter-culture-tinged life with her parents. By the time she landed in Boston in the 1980s, she was ready to hang up her traveling shoes. She was 20 years old and had been playing guitar and writing songs for about a third of her life. Catching a serious country k.d. lang in full-Western gear and attitude pushed her toward a goal ("I thought, 'oh my God, I could be doing that,' she says. 'I should be doing that.'") and, a story as old asthe business itself, marriage and motherhood tugged her back.
When she moved to Newburyport in 1993 to be closer to her parents, who had abandoned the city, the dream was still alive. She played out, she made some contacts, she generated some interest but, in the end, unless you're willing to do 250 shows a year and schmooze full-time in Nashville to network — unless you're willing to eat it, breathe it, live it every minute of every day — the bigshots just won't take you seriously. "I guess I wanted to have the best of both worlds," she says. The dream faded. Life intervened. She raised her daughter, Caitlan, now 24, who graduated from Berklee College of Music, and found honest work, opening Fancy Schmancy, an artists' outlet that also sells vintage jewelry and accessories, five years ago in Amesbury (now in a Pleasant Street storefront in Newburyport) and settled in for life.
Things changed two years ago, when her mother died. "I decided life's too short to not do the things you love," says Frame. She hadn't played guitar, let alone written anything substantial, in years, but she wanted to "get out there and put something together." She started hitting the open mikes, including the one run by Lucian Parkin and Kristine Malpica, a percussionist who owned and operated Imagine Studios, at J. Bucks. Malpica, who plays a cajón percussive box, introduced her to a multi-instrumentalist John Longo, late of Crazy Maggy, and a band was born. When Lynne Taylor, long a presence on the Port music scene, saw the trio open for roots-rockers The Mystix last year at a fundraiser for the Newburyport school system, she wanted in — and the band had a bassist and vocalist. "In two years I had a band and I thought, 'Damn, not bad.'"
Right now the Kickers are playing out a couple of times a month. The gigs are about 50-50 cover to original, but Frame is writing again and bringing out old songs from her catalogue. They'll nail down a couple of Frame originals. Then, who knows, Longo may whip out his National Steel Standard for the Robert Johnson blues classic "Come on in my Kitchen," or they may switch gears and have bassist Taylor tear into a cover of "That's All Right Mama.” They have a four-song demo out, but mostly for getting gigs. There are no immediate plans to put out an album. "Right now, I'm not pushing it," Frame says. "I enjoy what I'm doing. I think I'll just let things unfold at their own pace, see where it takes us."
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Liz Frame and the Kickers will perform in Musical Soup, a day-long music festival to benefit Amesbury for Africa on July 25 at Amesbury Sports Park, 12 Hunt Road, Amesbury. Also performing will be Ed Sheer and Mario Perrett of The Love Dogs, Ken Clark, Sweet Willie D, Abbie Barrett, the Toni Knott Band and others. The Bruce Marshall Group headlines.Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the gate. For advance tickets, click here. To hear the band for yourself, click here. Amesbury for Africa is a friendship-based development partnership between the town of Amesbury and its sister village of Esabalu in western Kenya. For more information, log onto www.amesburyforafrica.org.