Sleepy LaBeef’s prowess as a performer is legendary among rockabilly and roots-rock fans. He can ignite an audience seemingly at will, but his success is virtually impossible to analyze in terms of technique. Onstage he appears stolid, almost reserved most of the time, peering out at the crowd from under heavy, drooping eyelids. Even so, the passion that pours from him can elevate a crowd of drunken cowboys or bright-eyed baby boomers with equal facility, and his devotion to the country and rockabilly music tradition verges on the fanatic. LaBeef, whose career dates back to the 50s, has endured dead-end recording contracts, the destruction of his tour bus and vintage record collection in a fire, and periods of professional and personal uncertainty with unflappable dedication, optimism, and a well-developed sense of irony.

One usually thinks of rockabilly as a somewhat adolescent music, full of nasal twangs and high-pitched tenors, but LaBeef’s baritone booms out at you with a molar-rattling intensity, making up in timbre and resonance what it lacks in range. He complements it with a passionate, if somewhat roughshod, country-guitar picking style, heavy on the bass notes and embellished with a bluesy mournfulness that’s especially evident on his medium-tempo shuffles and slow ballads. He’s no virtuoso, but then the tradition he’s playing in depends more on nuance and feeling than on virtuosity and flash. The right notes, rather than the most notes, tell the story best.

LaBeef’s onstage appearance is at least somewhat deceptive; from behind those hooded eyes–which gave him his nickname when he was still little Thomas LaBeff, attending grade school in Smackover, Arkansas, in the early 1940s–he studies his audience intently, picking up on every energy change in the room. He then structures his set accordingly, digging deeper and deeper into his repertoire of over 6,000 songs until he hits the winning combination.

The result can be musically schizophrenic, but it’s almost always satisfying–and part of the fun of a Sleepy LaBeef show is the knowledge that he’s almost sure to do something you’ve never heard him do before. He’ll test his crowd with a mini-medley of tunes, trying a verse or two of a lugubrious country weeper and following it up with a high-charged rock-and-roll barn-burner, then segueing unexpectedly into a country ballad by Lefty Frizzell or Tom T. Hall. Somehow it all hangs together, even when he jumps from song to song so fast that you barely have time to recognize the tunes. After a while, when he’s gauged the room and found the right niche, he begins to stretch out a bit more, teasing and expanding his music into subtle new dimensions.

Recently Chicago listeners had a rare opportunity to see LaBeef tailor his material to three distinct venues–FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, the Lincoln Avenue Street Fair, and Lounge Ax on Lincoln Avenue. True to form, he crafted sets that were perfect for each audience; the subtle differences among the shows perfectly illustrated the essence of LaBeef’s genius as a performing musician.

One might think that the no-frills roadhouse atmosphere of FitzGerald’s on a Saturday night would be a natural element for LaBeef, but in fact it took him some time to acclimate himself. The FitzGerald’s stage is elevated and physically remote from the crowd; the synergy that occurs when a singer can go head-to-head with his audience is missing. Perhaps for that reason, LaBeef found it difficult to establish the intimacy necessary to put over a slow honky-tonk weeper. After a few attempts at ballads he fired up the jets and concentrated almost exclusively on rockers, novelty songs, and up-tempo rockabilly dance numbers.

Like Solomon Burke singing a passionate, slow gospel-soul medley, Sleepy LaBeef can plug endless songs into virtually the same riff and make everything sound fresh. At FitzGerald’s he found a chugging rockabilly groove and tore through such material as Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” Big Joe Turner’s “Boogie Woogie Country Girl,” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” barely hesitating between songs and seldom bothering to change keys. Nearly everything he sang was stripped of its original identity as it became part of his ongoing tour de force.

Only occasionally did that approach fail to do justice to the material. LaBeef’s exuberance is so infectious that even the most lugubrious ballads sound celebratory in his hands. On most country weepies, that’s fine; there’s a sense of irony to country music that allows for optimism without ruining its essence. But on a number like Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” the ebullient LaBeef couldn’t quite summon the growling, good-natured menace necessary to put over the lyrics (“I walk 49 miles of barbed wire / Got a cobra snake for a necktie / Brand-new house by the roadside / Made outta rattlesnake hide / Brand-new chimney built on top / Made outta human skulls / C’mon baby woncha take a little walk / Tell me who do you love . . .”).

LaBeef, an abstemious and deeply religious man, seems to have that trouble whenever he’s called upon to inject a note of lechery or evil into his material. Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” came off as an agreeable rocker, but the leering lasciviousness that made the original so irresistible to white teenagers was lost. Perhaps an artist like LaBeef, who doesn’t allow profanity or dirty jokes in his company, would do well to leave the down-and-dirty stuff to someone else.

Much more effective was Freddie Hart’s “Drink Up and Go Home,” a delightful anticountry country tune that satirizes the music’s self-indulgent pathos while paying affectionate tribute to its compassion. LaBeef’s resonant baritone attained a satiric edge as the band loped along behind him, perfectly fusing tenderness and harshness. By the time LaBeef tore into Tony Joe White’s backwoods anthem “Polk Salad Annie,” the audience was his. His rendition was somewhat rote–he mimicked White’s spoken “Chomp, chomp, chomp” interludes virtually verbatim, and the song charged along with a little too much energy to evoke the funky swamp atmosphere that made the original such an oddball classic–but still the crowd exploded into applause afterward.

On Sunday, the beer-soaked revelry of the Lincoln Park Street Fair allowed LaBeef to loosen up a bit more. His sound is powerful enough to fill any venue, even an open-air street stage; the schmaltzy soul of a country waltz like Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas With You” had the revelers dancing and swaying with lurching abandon in front of the stage; amid all the madness and merriment LaBeef stood calm and imperturbable. Unlike a soul artist, LaBeef provides the fuel to fire others’ celebration while remaining outside the fray, seldom surrendering to emotional abandon himself.

LaBeef’s encore at the street fair seemed as if it would never end; he played the audience like an instrument, picking up the energy level and then bringing things back down again with effortless ease. As he’d done at FitzGerald’s, he transformed Big Joe Turner’s “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” from a bluesy rocker into a rockabilly anthem. Even more impressive was his high-powered version of Hank Ballard’s “Tore Up Over You,” which he took at a flat-out roar. Heartbreak never sounded like so much fun. Finally he took on Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil,” singing the mournful ballad of infidelity and hanging in a voice rife with melancholy and dark mystery; few singers could have pulled off such material in this setting, especially after priming the crowd with so much rocked-out rowdiness, but LaBeef silenced them with his masterful retelling of the haunting tale. A rip-roaring “Chantilly Lace” brought things to a close.

After LaBeef’s easy victory at the Lincoln Avenue Street Fair one might have anticipated a letdown at Lounge Ax, with its dingy, postpunk atmosphere. It didn’t seem to bother LaBeef, however; he strode onstage and launched into a rollicking “Big Boss Man,” immediately capturing the crowd’s mood–rocking, irreverent, mildly rebellious. The Lounge Ax stage isn’t as high as the one at FitzGerald’s, and it protrudes slightly into the dance area, allowing more interplay between artist and audience. LaBeef was able to establish enough intimacy to let the full scope of his talents shine; he sang Tom T. Hall’s exquisite ballad “May the Good Lord Never Show You the Back of His Hand” like a hymn, gently wrapping the lyrics in his powerful tenderness.

It’s characteristic of LaBeef, though, that his finest moment at Lounge Ax was a thoroughly improbable–and thoroughly succcessful–search-and-rescue mission into the dregs of country-pop music. He turned Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” one of the most cloying and badly sung songs to ever hit the charts, into a growling, no-nonsense testament, grinding out powerful, modal chords as he barked out the verses in a voice as threatening and vengeful as any he’d summoned all day, retaining just enough good spirit to keep things from getting overly macho or ugly.

About the only low points of a Sleepy LaBeef show occur when he lets his sidemen sing. His current bass player, David Young, has the prototypical C and W voice–nasal, largely affectless, and flat. After being bathed in the glory of LaBeef’s voice, one nearly cringes when Young takes over the microphone.

Also a problem at both FitzGerald’s and Lounge Ax was the trumpet playing of Dan Rabinowitz. Rabinowitz is an established horn man–he usually plays in bluesman Son Seals’s band–but little of LaBeef’s repertoire lends itself to solo brass. Occasionally, on an up-tempo rocker or a fast waltz, the trumpet sound took on a quaint Tex-Mex jauntiness; more often, though, one could hear Rabinowitz straining to adapt the horn’s sharp clarity to the folkish directness of the music. Rabinowitz also did some singing–he attempted Big Joe Turner’s “Flip, Flop, and Fly”–but his voice is even thinner than Young’s, and it was impossible to listen to him without thinking about how wonderful LaBeef would have sounded on the same number.

Sleepy, meanwhile, was in his element. He charged headlong into a delightful Hank Williams medley–“You Win Again,” a lovely “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin”‘–that showcased both the breadth of Williams’s genius and the depth of his own. He fired off a propulsive version of the old Dave Dudley truckers’ anthem “Six Days on the Road,” and even managed to breathe new life into Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” although to do so he had to take it at a tempo so fast that the underlying pathos of the original was lost.

It might be argued that ultimately LaBeef is a human jukebox–an immensely talented, dedicated, and versatile one but a jukebox nonetheless. It’s true that he seldom if ever performs original material, and he sometimes sounds as if he’s tearing through his amazing repertoire a little too fast, almost perfunctorily. He also tends to ignore contemporary material; even much-covered standards like “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” are delivered in a style closer to that of their originators (in this case Roy Acuff) than the artists with whom most modern audiences associate them (Willie Nelson).

But there’s an immediacy to LaBeef’s performances that can’t be denied; his shows are not exercises in nostalgia but present-tense celebrations of a music and a culture that, to him and his legion of followers, have never died. The life-affirming vitality that first endeared this music to a generation in the 50s is reborn every time Sleepy LaBeef takes the stage; as long as he’s out there, crisscrossing the country in one of his four vintage Cadillacs and firing up clubs in big cities and backwaters alike, lovers of the real thing can rest assured that somewhere there’s going to be good rockin’ tonight.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.