Not even an act of God can quell Billy Miller and Miriam Linna's dedication to keeping 1950s garage and rockabilly sounds alive. Although Hurricane Sandy decimated Norton Records' office and warehouse last October, the Brooklyn label's co-founders have the situation under control enough to take their own brand of '50s rock 'n' roll obscurities South with their group the A-Bones. And when the band takes the stage at the Earl on April 11 before another one-off performance in Nashville, it will be the group's first time in Atlanta since playing the Star Bar's Fuzz Fest back in 1998.
For both the upcoming Atlanta and Nashville shows, the band will have the same lineup that recorded its most recent album, 2009's Not Now!, including Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo on guitar, along with piano and saxophone player Lars Espensen, who left the band three years ago. Indeed, it's rare that all of the pieces fall into place for this lineup to convene and go on the road together — Kaplan has quite a busy schedule with Yo La Tengo, and Espensen now lives in Alabama, where he performs with the Original Snake Charmers. As a result, these two shows are the group's only appearances outside of New York City for the time being.
Culled from the ashes of their former group, the Zantees, the A-Bones were formed with Miller and with his wife Linna in the summer of 1984. Seven albums, multiple reunion shows, and nearly 30 years later, their live set is peppered with a few original numbers and a whole lot of obscure early rock 'n' roll covers, such as Benny Joy's "Button Nose" and the Devils' "Devil Dance," performed with the same grimy rockabilly fuzz and sneer as one of Linna's earlier bands, the Cramps.
Miller and Linna formed Norton Records in 1986 to release a compilation of Hasil Adkins singles. Since then, the label has continued releasing new and vintage LPs, including music by such like-minded Atlanta acts as the Gaye Blades and the Black Lips. Norton also released a compilation of songs by the formerly Atlanta-based soul legend the Mighty Hannibal, who's become something of a fixture at most Norton-sponsored events. "Hannibal lives close by, and he's a real character," Miller says. "He calls the office every morning at 10 o'clock on the dot, giving us career updates."
Over the years, Norton's warehouse has become a rock and pop culture archive of sorts, including the label's numerous vinyl releases, back issues of Kicks magazine, founded by Miller and Linna in 1979, and the growing library of Kicks Books, a new imprint that specializes in vintage style paperbacks.
Housed in a pre-Civil War facility in Brooklyn's Red Hook district, which was originally used to store dry goods, Norton's collection seemed to be in an ideal and well-protected environment. But Hurricane Sandy hit the neighborhood hard last October, causing about six feet of water to pool up where Norton's back stock, Linna's paperback collection, a zine archive dating back to the 1940s, and files on bands that included vintage photographs and album review clippings were stored.
The only records not potentially damaged were the ones about to be released at a time when Norton's mail-order business was already slowed down due to the hurricane. "One blessing we had is that seven new albums were coming out the following week, and they were still at the pressing plant," Miller says, adding that there were also some Kicks releases shipping to the office soon, including a book by Kim Fowley.
At first, things seemed dim. "Insurance did not pay for 200 businesses in the area because they said it was an act of God," Miller says. The couple's hard work over the years was not forgotten, as numerous volunteers came out to clean damaged records, and benefits were staged by legendary acts like the Pretty Things and the Sonics, helping save a label that preserves both bands' classic garage gems.
According to Miller, about 14 million records were affected by floodwaters, and with the help of volunteers, about 70,000 of them have been salvaged. "It was a weird couple of months," he adds. "I would be putting on rubber gloves before I put on my shoes. It was around-the-clock record cleaning."
Though not even added manpower and financial support can undo that much damage in a little over five months, Norton has come a long way since cleanup efforts began early last November. "We're back in business, as much as we can be, thanks to all the volunteers and benefits," Miller adds.
Now that at least some of Norton's back stock of records have been saved from their waterlogged album covers, which will soon be replaced, Miller and Linna can take a much-needed break from the warehouse, and bring the A-Bones back to Atlanta.