Music Feature 

In the two and a half years since Rocket 350 graced Savannah with their presence, an awful lot has changed.

The frenetic rockabilly act has relocated their base of operations from Athens to Atlanta, recorded two CDs for an established indie imprint (American Grease and Junglebilly on Beatville), and weathered a drastic personnel change that saw a full two-thirds of the band replaced.

Additionally, The Velvet Elvis (which regularly hosted the group in their early days) has closed and reopened as The Jinx.

While the Velvet was known far and wide as a popular rockabilly and swing venue, this new club has only recently begun to incorporate those genres into the indie-rock, punk and metal they’re more known for, so the band’s long-awaited return should serve as a welcome flashback of sorts for longtime habitués of that celebrated nightspot.

Those who show up will get to see one of Atlanta’s most popular retro-rock bands roar through original material in the vein of such icons as Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Johnny Burnette. However, the Rocket 350 of 2004 is noticeably different from the band that used Savannah as a proving ground

“We did it full-time for a while, but then it kinda blew up in a bad way,” says guitarist and bandleader Phil Stair. “We were on the road for months at a time, and eventually, people quit, everybody got upset, and we all ended up broke. We had to re-evaluate things.”

Stair says the decision to continue on under the same name was easy to make.

“Well, it was pretty much my band. I put the whole thing together.”

He also had surprisingly little difficulty recruiting a new rhythm section.

“Actually it was really cool,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of downtime because I already knew people who were excited to play, and I didn’t really have to look around too much. My phone started lighting up as soon as word got out that members were missing. I got very lucky.”

The band’s lineup now includes Stair on guitar and vocals, Gary "Grease Monkey” Bernie on upright bass, and Adam "The Admiral” Gilbert on drums.

These days they are much more reluctant to travel, and instead have concentrated on building up a loyal fanbase in their hometown, where they now regularly headline such popular music rooms as The Star Bar and The Echo Lounge.

“We do really well in Atlanta,” says Stair. “We draw lots of greasers and punks. It only took seven years!”

According to the frontman, the rigors of cross-country touring played a large part in the demise of the group’s first lineup, and he’s in no hurry to repeat the same mistakes.

“We were able to break even for a while, but eventually things slowed down and it caught up to us. The stress of living together in a van didn’t help either.”

Another contributing factor was the disappointing situation with their record distributor.

“Instead of promoting three bands, they picked thirty, so they was spread too thin. The owner’s selling real estate now. (laughs) I think the label’s done.”

Now, Stair says he does his best to make sure a show is likely to go well before they hit the asphalt.

“I know Savannah’s always been an awesome time for us, so that’s one reason why we’re coming back.”

And what does he remember most?

“The debauchery,” he chuckles.

“We played a few times on St. Patrick’s Day and it always seemed like someone’s top came off during our show. They just came up on stage and took care of business.”

Phil says he still gets offers to play far from home, but he turns them down.

“I would go if they sent me a plane ticket, but that’s about it! (laughs) We don’t even have a van any more. We’ve got a pickup truck. We just hope for good weather, and we’ve got some big tarps. (laughs)”

Stair admits that he hopes there are still people in town “who remember us,” and adds that he believes old fans of the group will be pleasantly surprised with their current incarnation.

“They’re probably gonna like it better. I think very highly of the guys I play with now. They’re both ‘ringers,’ if you know what I mean. Our bass player puts on a fantastic show just by himself, and the drummer we have now is more of a hard-hitter. I think it’s a much better band.”

“You know, it got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore, and now – the way we have it set up – it’s fun again.”
Rocket 350 play The Jinx on Saturday night. Jimmy & The Teasers and The Tombstone Daddys open the show.


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Jim Reed

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