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Viva Las Vegas 1998
A Rockabilly Weekender Review
By Bill Smoker, email BillSmoker@compuserve.com
Here is my review of VLV. Please feel free to use all or any part of it in your fanzines, web pages etc. If you have any comments or corrections please send them to me privately This is NOT a definitive review: I would still be interested in hearing what other people thought. Bill Smoker, London
Viva Las Vegas 98, the most eagerly-awaited rocking event of the last decade, is now over, and all of the attendees have now returned to their workaday lives. So what happened, was it all that we had hoped for? Here is one ageing rocker's opinion.
Viva Las Vegas '98 by Smoker
Like most of the people who had travelled from around the world, we had decided to make a holiday of it. And so it was over a week before Easter that my wife Kikka, Jane Holmes, Mark Lamborn and myself arrived in San Diego in order to devour the city's entire stock of vintage clothing and records. It was with bulging suitcases and strained credit cards that we set off on interstate 15 for a 300-mile journey across the Mojave Desert, Link Wray making an ideal soundtrack for the spectacular scenery.
An overnight stay in Barstow, a town that does nothing to improve the fact that it is in middle of nowhere, and we made the last stretch early on Wednesday morning. Check into the hotel Gold Coast, (pure luxury after some weekender chalets), a quick change and a look in the local phone directory.
It was time for a party at the legendary ranch house of Rollin' Rock supremo Ronny Weiser (now a Vegas resident). Mr and Mrs Weiser were perfect hosts to a well-behaved crowd of over 150 people invited via the internet-based RAB mailing list. Music came from Gene Vincent sidekick BOB KELLY (who was also selling copies of the splendid new CD of Gene's lost Dallas Sessions) and a jam band of RAB-l members. It was interesting to put faces to so many familiar names from the Internet.
The barbecue-and-beer thrash broke up at 8:15pm as we adjourned to the lounge bar at the Desert Inn. Entertainment was provided by popular UK jive outfit THE BIG SIX, who are doing an eight week residency there. They did more than justice to mostly swing and jive material in the first short set.
Drummer Ricky Brawn (Stargazers, Space Cadets) sang some fine RAB material in the second set. Helen Shadow (Queen Bs/Blue Blazes) did Barbara Pittman's "I Need A Man" and Janis Martin's evergreen "Bang Bang" amongst others. Her trademark Mohawk haircut may have alarmed a few traditionalists in the crowd, but she showed her true mettle to anyone blinkered enough to judge a book by the cover. The Big Six are destined for greatness, and they certainly showed us why tonight.
Lots of hard vodka drinking meant that inevitably we woke the next day to stinking hangovers. I went for a walk in the Gold Coast casino at 6am on Thursday morning in an attempt to get the painkillers working, only to find some rocking lads from Southend in England still keeping the bar staff busy. They had been propping the bar up all night, and had obviously got into the weekender mood early. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they still haven't gone to bed now!
It was really weird to meet so many friends from London (over 300 British felines were at VLV) in such an alien environment. It was almost as if Hemsby camp had been magically transported from a dreary, damp English seaside town to the most exciting city in the western Hemisphere. Even the security team had been shipped over from London, a feat equivalent to selling snow to Eskimos. The early part of Thursday was spent sightseeing, shopping, booking in, gossiping, drinking.
The evening proper kicked off just after 9pm with Californian BOBBY TRIMBLE acting as DJ. He was familiar to many of us as bass player with Big Sandy & Flyrite Boys. Bobby played a fine selection of RAB records like Eddie Dugosh "One Mile". The ballroom was filling up fast, and a feeding frenzy was occurring around the vending stalls (vintage clothes being particularly popular). Mr Trimble continued to impress with a bunch of tunes from artists we have recently lost, such as Carl Perkins and Jackie Lee Cochran.
DANNY DEANE & THE HOMEWRECKERS were the first band of VLV. They kicked off with "Flea Brain" (Gene Vincent) and "Please Don't Touch" (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates). The Homewreckers have a crisp contemporary RAB sound; not 'neo' or 'authentic', just fresh and very much their own. They seem to be quite influenced by British RNR acts of the late 50s, early 60s. Lots of Johnny Kidd and Cliff Richard classics like "Move It" etc. For an American band to tackle material like this is an unusual gimmick that works well. Let's face it, it is no sillier than UK bands singing hillbilly bop.
After Danny Deane's enjoyable set, VLV organiser TOM INGRAM stepped up to the decks. I had not seen Tom DJ for a few years, since he moved from his native London to Long Beach, CA. He has lost none of his touch, and all of his old favourites were rolled out to keep the dancefloor filled. The decks in the upstairs ballroom where the bands played were unwisely positioned by the stage on an unsteady table, so that people making requests could jump records with the slightest nudge, an irritation that could have been easily rectified.
It was after midnight when hugely popular band BIG SANDY & THE FLYRITE BOYS went on stage to a warm reception. Their sound has been drifting closer to western swing in recent years, but tonight they played a largely RAB set tailored to the audiences taste. Jimmy Patton's "Yeah I'm Moving" was adjusted from "Dallas Town" to "Vegas Town". Guitarist Ashley Kingman was on great form as always. "Booze Party" was a very suitable choice for the night. "Feeling Kinda Lucky", which has gained them some media exposure, was rendered pleasingly.
I was distracted at this point by spotting some friends from Europe that I hadn't seen for a long while, and was too busy catching up on news that I neglected to make note of the bands' set. This is always a problem with large events like this: there are always so many old friends to talk to, and new friends to make, that one can sometimes miss out on some great music. It was chatting like this that kept me occupied throughout the Flyrite Boys encores and the next set of records from Tom.
Next on the agenda were the NO HIT RECORDS ALL STAR BAND. Celebrating 10 years of the British-based label, with Brian Neville playing drums, and Eddie Angel (Planet Rockers, Los Straitjackets) on guitar, it was obvious that we were in for something special. "Casbah", the haunting instrumental from Eddie's Guitar Party album on the label, grabbed everyone's attention. Eddie's all-time smash "Rampage" still sounded beautiful and delivered delicious chills.
And then a real treat: The Crazy from Corsicana, Mack Stevens was brought on. Mack was wearing a straitjacket and muzzle, and was led on by his pouting accomplice Donna, who was wearing a nurses uniform. She gave Mack his medication, and the audience was warned not to make too much noise as it excites him into dangerous behaviour patterns. "Benzedrine Boogie Blues" from the album "Dangerous Man" (On The Hill label) came first, closely followed by "Cutting Boogie", the best bopper-about-an-autopsy ever! More medication (Demerol) gave Mr Stevens the energy to tackle Sleepy La Beef's "All The Time". It was completely insane! It was going to be a hard act to top!
"Twenty Flight Rock", with the bassist Jimmy Satin taking vocals, gives some respite, but the grinning psychopath came back with "Bad Bad Boy", the Bobby Lollar tune. This one came over as tough and aggressive. "Scream!" Ralph Nielsen's finest moment is recreated with a high octane injection. The audience was now getting disorientated. People at the front were dancing as if their lives depended on it, others were standing open-mouthed and bewildered at the spectacle.
'Nurse' Donna needed restraining by the band members as she screamed into the mic, seemingly fit to burst a blood vessel. This was possibly the noisiest thing I have ever heard! The band did the traditional leave-the-stage-and-return-for-encore routine, ending with Gene Maltais' "Raging Sea", segued into "Good Rocking Tonight".
Mad Mack left the stage, and the band line-up rearranged itself. Big Joe Louis, Matt Radford and Carl Sonny Leyland took their places, and Ashley Kingman joined them. Carl sang lead vocal as they sailed through a brief set of jump blues and boogie. There was only time for a handful of platters from Tom Ingram before the ballroom closed at 3am, and so we all made our way out, some to bed, some to the bars and some to the slots and gaming tables.
Friday began with a mad rush to Pete Hakonen's (Goofin' Records CEO) wedding to long time partner Satu. The simple ceremony at the Graceland chapel, attended only by Pete's lovely parents, and a few close friends, was followed by a drinks party in the Hakonens' room at the Orleans hotel. All of these nuptial events meant that I missed the Billy Boppers' show.
JERRY DESVAUX, editor of Continental Restyling magazine, was doing the honours in the vinyl corner in the ballroom at 10pm, playing RAB standards like "Hip Shaking Baby". Sweden's finest, the GO GETTERS, dedicated their set to newlyweds Pete & Satu. "No Brakes", "I Wonder If You Wonder" and "Rocket" (Sparkletones), started the proceedings. The line-up had changed since the band had last been seen abroad. Eric on bass kept things thonking along nicely behind Pete Sandberg's confident vocals and drumming. "Mexigo" (made familiar from Ronnie Dawson's Just Rockin' and Rollin' LP, but a Sandberg composition) proved to be real crowd pleasers, and the dancing commenced in earnest.
On "Blue Moon Baby", the guitar riff was closer to Dave Day's original than the Go-Getters own recording. Some people commented to me that it sounded rather Stray Cat-ish but I couldn't hear the similarity, except perhaps in the snare'n'cymbal percussion. "Sugar Sweet" was played close to the Muddy Waters version, with Pete playing harp as well. Spirited renditions of "Ice Cold Baby", "Real Gone Daddy" and a frantic "High School Caesar" completed the set. Big Sandy had no trouble rousing the crowd into calling the GGs back for an encore with "You Don't Love Me". These boys blew us away; their new CD on Goofin' was perhaps the hottest selling record of the weekend; the Sounds That Swing stall couldn't get enough of 'em.
I caught up with Mack Stevens in the bar downstairs, where he gave me the low-down on his forthcoming album for No Hit, "You Die Tonight", which looks set to grossly offend people everywhere with its pure RAB tunes and gruesome lyrics. Mack is as entertaining in conversation as he is onstage, and he distracted me enough that I missed the start of DEKE DICKERSON & HIS DEKES OF HAZARD (watch out for a name change soon). They were kicking new life into "Old Sparky" when I first saw them, "Solid Sender" from his Echo-Phonic solo EP, and "Beatin' on the Bars" rolled along with vim. DD didn't so much play his legendary twin-necked Mosrite as seduce it into casting its spell. Bob Luman's "In the Deep Dark Jungle" and "(No More) Rockin' the Blues" kept the pace up.
Most of the material was from Deke's prodigious back catalogue, including his work with Untamed Youth and the Dave & Deke Combo. They encored with the D & D fave "Chrome Dome". As Deke said at the end, "I may be losing a little hair but I'm getting a whole lot more head!". Johnny, Brian and Monie make perfect partners for Deke. A second encore gave us a splendid run through Autrey Inman's Decca recording "A Doggone Lie".
Downstairs to the DJs-only dancehall, where Levi Dexter was billed but he hadn't shown, so Big Bob from Tokyo was doing his bit. The Gold Coast had become a United Nations of bop, with felines of all nationalities dancing together. Bobby Trimble proved himself as the best DJ of the weekend with some western-tinged boppers, his choice of "Mean Eyed Cat" by Johnny Cash was a very refreshing one. More talking rubbish with everyone, meeting 'net buddies for the first time and drinking an unhealthy range of cheap cocktails. Sometime as the sun came up Friday night faded into snoring blackness.
Saturday dawns, & so does the realisation that we have lost a credit card. Sorting this out meant that we missed the Smith Ranch Boys and, tragically, Kim Lenz and her Jaguars, who by all accounts were terrific. Now I won't see her until the RAB rave in November, and will have to make do with her splendid album on Hightone.
I did manage to catch the end of Big Boy Bloater's show, a joyous blend of 50s jive and jump blues. Mousie (red Hot & Blue, Space Cadets) spun the wax next, his varied set an irregular blend of RAB classics, newer bands and early 60s punkers & instros. Although familiar to (and popular with) the European crowd, his records didn't seem always to everyone's taste. The sound was also loud enough to get people complaining about the volume. Standing behind the speakers means that a DJ cannot hear how loud he is; a monitor by the decks would have reduced the problem.
Mousie handed over to the STILLMEN. They started with a couple of their own tunes; my first impressions were favourable, quite Charlie Feathers sounding, Mr Feathers' "Jungle Fever" apparently confirming their influences. The four-piece band come from San Francisco and seemed to have a lot of hometown support in the audience. The Rhythm player has a strong, rich hiccuping voice, well suited to songs like "Cool Off Baby" (Billy Barrix). Thrilling RAB lead guitar licks throughout. "One Way Track" (Hank Davis) turned out very well, a hard track to cover successfully. It wasn't all cover versions, they also did lots of their own material with sharp lyrics. Doc was compering, I don't know what the non-Brits thought of his broad London accent, but I heard a rumour that Big Sandy was compering as well for reasons of clarity. We didn't want the Stillmen to leave us, so they returned with "Living It Up".
The winners of Saturday's Custom Car Show were announced amid customary confusion. There was only time for a brief pitstop at the bar (we had to drink booze, an Englishman couldn't get a decent cup of tea anywhere!) before filing back in for the evening's headliners.
Big Sandy introduced LARRY & LORRIE COLLINS backed by Deke Dickerson & band. Club classic "Mercy" made an attention-grabbing opener. Lorrie was in good voice, looking great and ready to rock. "Hop Skip & Jump", another favourite, came next. The hall was mobbed with lively folk, including a largish group of senior citizens who seemed to be greatly enjoying the show. "In My Teens" was followed by instrumental "Hurricane". Bearded Larry's skill with his twin-necked Mosrite is prodigious, perhaps even better than on the old records. "Rock Bopping Baby", "Beetle Bug Bop", "Just Because", the old hits just kept on coming. The Collins 'Kids' sound has obviously changed now that Larry's voice has broken, but the rearranged vocal harmonies work well.
The instrumental "Rockin Gypsy" was outstanding. Then we got "Whistle Bait", "Hoy Hoy" and some mutual backslapping with the ever-cuddly Big Sandy before finishing with the Elvis classic "Party". The Collins Kids went down a storm at Hemsby, but the combination with Deke & his cohorts had pushed them to new heights.
The RACKETEERS from Boston hit the stage just after 1am and sunk their teeth into Mickey Hawks' "Bip Bop Boom". These cool-looking, besuited lounge lizards have oodles of enthusiasm. Their assault on "Cast Iron Arm" was sublime, "Born to Love One Woman" (Ric Cartey) was less successful but enjoyable all the same. "Crazy Baby" (Gene Maltais) featured some insane whistling that raised a smile. "Four o'Clock Baby", "Out For Kicks" and "College Man" were performed with lots of intense energy. The Racketeers seemed to be having as much fun as we were, and when the drummer/singer (is this a burgeoning trend?) opined "This is the best rocking weekender that the US has ever seen", we roared our agreement. Two guitars and a persistent slap bass drove the Big O's "Rockhouse" into hyperspace. An encore of "Who Slapped John" completed the pretty picture. If you get the chance, catch this thrilling band.
Southern Californian outfit the SUN DEMONS were Saturday night's final act. Songs like "This is the Night" and "If you Should Leave Me" (Jack Collins) were performed in a fine straight RAB style. It may have been the late hour, but the crowd didn't seem too interested in the capable combo, although I must say that I enjoyed them.
Four am Sunday morning saw me sitting in the record hop dancehall listening to Jerry's Chatabox playing hot boppers. A contingent among the attendees seemed to like jiving to these fast numbers, which is considered a style-crime in some obsessive circles. What was stranger were the people who did an identical, incompetent jive no matter what was playing or the suitability of its rhythm. Beautiful music like "That Certain Female" gets a dance floor filled, and it was jammed for "Rocking Bones" by Ronnie Dawson. It is that teary, emotional moment which always comes in the wee small hours at these events. You had better believe it of the international rocking scene; there is STILL a lot of rhythm in these Rockin' Bones. Oh dear, time for bed...
SUNDAY - A real treat as we witnessed Jerry and Theresa become Mr and Mrs Brill at a classically tacky Las Vegas Elvis wedding. Several couples had decided to tie the knot this weekend; four couples to my knowledge and I am sure that there were more. This meant that we missed Russell Scott & His Red-Hots.
But I did catch the TENNESSEE RHYTHM RIDERS and boy was I pleased that I did. I had already seen this London-based combo a week earlier at Tio Leos in San Diego (thanks to Jennifer Merrill) where their performance had been marred by flu & jet lag. They were in top form tonight though, and as they opened with a mid-paced "Headin' West" (the title track of the new album) it was obvious that Lynette's sweet voice had fully recovered. An upbeat "Jukebox Boogie" followed, then another Ramblin' Jack Dolan number "Hot Rod Mama", this time with pianist Dave Madgewick at the mic. The dedication of "Rockaway Rock" to the Collins Kids was popular, even more so the change to RAB style when guitarist Willy Briggs sang "Shake 'em Up Rock". TRRs most obvious influence is the Maddox Brothers and Rose, "Single Girl" showing that Lynette can emulate Rose Maddox's voice uncannily well. Her tribute to the singer, "Ramblin' Rose", was very moving. Talented steel player Phil Morgan then played rhythm to duet with Willy on the Maddox's "Ugly & Slouchy". Meanwhile, Lynette had left the stage and reappeared in a colourfully embroidered white Western Suit (reminiscent of 'that' jump suit) for a debut live performance of "Viva Las Vegas", which was released on a limited edition single on Studio28 label to coincide with this event. As the VLV anthem, it got a huge ovation from the enthralled audience. They were not yet sated, and forced the band to return, lapping up Hank's evergreen "I Saw The Light", the whole band and audience singing along lustily. The vivacious, good-humoured show was swept along with much jolly self-deprecation of their English accents. The only American was stand-in fiddle player Matt Cartsonis, whose skill enabled him to blend seamlessly with the others with a minimum of rehearsal. A London band singing hillbilly and western swing at a US gig might look on paper like sending coals to Newcastle, but TRRs recreation of the golden age of country music is so precise that they never seem incongruous.
A combo based around members of the Flyrite Boys backed Specialty R+B legends DON & DEWEY. They were obviously ripped on the Hemsby-like atmosphere. The Ballroom was little emptier than the previous night. It seemed that some of the Americans, who get less leave than their European counterparts, had left early in order to get to work the next day. Well, it was their loss; Don & Dewey were brilliant. "Mammer Jammer", "Just a Little Loving", "I Feel Like Crying", "Farmer John" all screamed out of the band, fired with brilliant driving sax playing from the Comets' Joey D'Ambrosia. When Ronny Weiser and some female friends got up on stage to dance, Ronny's idiosyncratic technique provided huge entertainment. When they first left the stage we just knew that they had to return, and so they did with a really funky version of "Justine". My enjoyment was enhanced by talking to the day's groom, human foghorn Jerry Brill (singer with Frantix) whose incessant gags, anecdotes, uninhibited dancing and one liners kept me laughing all evening, until I thought I would need an oxygen tent.
The numbers swell for the arrival of the TRENIERS, a band that has appeared in more rock'n'roll movies than any other. "Rockin' is Our Business", one of their best known hits, is the first number. Tuxedo-clad and with a slick stage show, the Treniers are the consumate rocking Vegas band. They sure can cut the mustard; after all of these years they still perform with vigour and humour. "Stop Stop", from Alan Freed exploiter movie Don't knock the Rock was hugely energetic. By the time they reached the Sonny Bono composition "Koko Joe" however, it was apparent that sound problems were flaring up. These problems, especially with the on-stage monitors, plagued almost all bands during the weekend. The Treniers were far too professional to make repeated comments about these technical glitches, and so they went unrectified. Seeing these troupers struggling with poor equipment and/or engineers really spoiled my enjoyment of their otherwise splendid show.
The ballroom was packed to the gills and buzzing with anticipation for RONNIE DAWSON. Although many of us have seen him live several times, he is still a highlight of any weekender. It took a few moments for Ronny D to reach the stage through the admiring crowd. "Red Hot Mama" was his first choice. There was a twinge of disappointment as we realise that the lineup does not include Tjarko Jeen or Lisa Pankratz. "Shim Sham Shimmy" triggers lots of jiving at the back. "Yum Yum" (featured in the film Primary Colours) follows. Ronny wore a spectacular midnight blue western shirt studded with rhinestones. A swathe was cut through the sparklers on his shoulder to leave a space for his guitar strap. "Fish Out of Water" came out heavy and fast, stony-faced lead guitarist Dan Philips from Dallas showing us that he has what it takes to stand alongside the Texan typhoon.
Dan takes to the steel for "V8 Ford Boogie", and proved that he is very at home there, too. Back on lead for "It Wouldn't Do No Good", Ronnie's fuel injected performance continued to build tension.
"Congratulations To Me" was dedicated to Ronnie's wife, Christy. The song was taken a little slower & bluesier than we normally hear it. "Crazy Shoes" was dedicated to Big Sandy, who played on the original recording in London about 5 years ago. "Rocking in The Graveyard", a mean & meaty rocking chiller, featured a drum solo of pure genius from Jon Palmer. "Veronica", which has been getting a lot of play in UK clubs recently, was done quietly and with a pleasing Latin, Tex-Mex flavour. Ronnie showed that his hard, armour-piercing voice can handle sweetness equally well. Todd Wulfmeyer, known for his work for Willie Lewis' RAB Record label, excelled on stand-up bass. "Tired of Travelling" was a fine train-rhythm country rocker, "Just Rockin' & Rollin'" and "No Dice" were as joyous as ever, but "Rockin' Bones" was a bit pedestrian and lacked the guts that the macho lyrics deserve. "Action Packed", Dawson's best-loved track of the 50s, was greeted by a huge cheer. The guitar picking flew hot & fast, and the house erupted with a stomping demand for more. The band returned and added Eddie Angel & Big Sandy. Chuck Berry's "Reelin' & Rockin'", a cliched and often dull choice for all-star jam sessions, was given a good hard bashing by this stage full of awesome RAB talent, who made it as refreshing as a cold glass of beer.
The crowd thought that that was it, the majority headed for the doors, but too many people made too much noise for the show to end. The core band returned, the audience streamed back into the hall, and the boys turned in the most spectacular version of "Rockinitis" ever. Words fail me to describe just how heavenly it sounded. A talking-guitar duel between Dawson and Phillips of jaw-dropping virtuosity, and the show ended as it had begun with Mr Dawson walking among his adoring public chopping chords out effortlessly. Both the band & ourselves were too exhausted to take anymore excitement and the record hop resumed with a set of rocking screamers in what turned out to be Jerry Desvaux's keynote set, unfortunately missed by too many thirsty punters.
HOT STUFF from Switzerland provided the weekend's swansong. "You Ought to See Grandma Rock" (Skeets McDonald) and their own "Wild Nights at The Junction" were muffled by poor sound (again!). These boys pack plenty of punch, but it still sounded a little weak after Ronnie. Simon Walty has a truly great voice, and presented a frenetic stage show, despite a disappointing turnout in the hall. Maybe people are too exhausted by a weekend of high living. The band members are (perhaps) Max Dolder and Walter Thut on guitar and slap bass, Paul Burkhalter on drums. This might be wrong, as the info comes from sleeve notes to Tail 10-incher "Only For Hep Cats", which is highly recommended.
Simon Walty's sweat-drenched hair flopped lankly across his face while he scorched through "Bluest Boy in Town" and "Mama Don't You Think I Know". Simon stands on speakers, runs about the small stage, falls to the floor, strips off his shirt, anything to get his audience going. His narcissistic stage persona alienated some of the male contingent, but hey, this is showbiz! Shorty lent his beautiful bass to almost all of the Euro bands, and it was present here as well. With the name 'Shorty' picked out in white on a black background, it is certainly pleasant to behold, as was the guitarist's Gretcsh. "Move It On Over" was delightful, an innovative & perky RAB version. The encore "Train Kept A'Rollin'" was electric; everyone got very worked up about Simon's gooseflesh inducing voice. "High School Baby" provided a strong finish. And suddenly, there were no more bands.
Downstairs in the dancehall a little later. Remaining stragglers from the wedding party are still drinking themselves into the ground. There is hot music, a sweet atmosphere. Pete Sandberg, resplendent in sunglasses after dark, doesn't try to shout over the high volume. He just shows me a brown paper bag with these words printed on it: "Get more out of life with music". Looks like a good philosophy to me.
My tired eyes told me that it was time for bed. I thanked Barney Koumis & Tom Ingram for organising this great weekend and headed for the elevators, a little downhearted that it was all over. Over 2000 rockin' folk from all corners of the globe in the town of neon and endless nightlife. Was it the best weekender ever? It is up against some tough competition, but the combination of the promoter's proven track record in organising the best events, combined with the benefits of Las Vegas' splendour, mean that Viva Las Vegas is almost impossible to improve. I guarantee that this will become the premier rocking event on planet Earth. If you missed it, leave the room now & give yourself a good hard kick up the backside. Then, start saving for next Easter; because I know that you wouldn't want to miss the next one. And if you don't believe me, just ask anyone who was there...
Bill Smoker, London, email BillSmoker@compuserve.com
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