If you can imagine Bill Monroe playing Prince’s "Purple Rain", Doc Boggs taking a crack at Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit", or John Lee Hooker down the Delta singing "Smoke on the Water," then you have some idea of what the Handlebars sound like.
Since the 29th November 1994 this Frankfurt-based trio, featuring American multi-instrumentalists L. Don Ohkami (banjo, guitar, dobro, vocals) and Paul Kachur (banjo, mandolin, guitar, vocals), as well as Greco-German bassist extraordinaire Konstantinos (Kosta) Kostis, have been on a mission. Their aim is to cross rock, pop, heavy metal, grunge and punk with old-time Appalachian mountain music, Kentucky bluegrass, Delta blues, country and a host of other traditional American styles of music.
The result is a driving, pulsing, reeling, rocking, feel-good genre-mash which they like to call Hillbilly Grunge or Mountain Metal or Rhythm and Bluegrass, depending on which pop or punk classic they are mixing with which traditional style.
Whatever you call what they do, the genius of the band lies in the combination of first-class musicianship, humor and respect for the song they bring to their sound. Their renditions are not piss-takes but fundamental reworkings combining the spirit of the originals with that of old-timey music. The result remains true to both and unique to itself – and certainly unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
They say great songwriting transcends genre. The Handlebars, by their own admission, are hell bent on proving it’s true. "I remember hanging out with a guy named Big Sky Biff in 1986 back in Flagstaff, Arizona," says Paul, "and he pointed out to me that Purple Rain is a perfect bluegrass song. And if you listen to it, you see that it is."
Adds L. Don: "We like to think of ourselves as musical deconstructionists. We take songs apart and put them back together in new ways. Think what Jacques Derrida might have sounded like if he had been a folk musician."
If that thought grabs you, then make sure you don’t miss The Handlebars the next time they come to your town. Just make sure to check your preconceptions at the door. This may be the only band you’ll ever see where they’ve got sour mash down in the mosh pit.