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November 17, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Music | November 17, 2008 |

Lord, am I tired. And deaf. But I’ve got rhythm in my heart and whiskey in my belly, and for that, I am grateful. You see, a couple of months ago I was randomly checking out upcoming shows in Boston and discovered a band I’d been dying to see was coming to town. Then another one. Then two more! All in the same week. All country music or some derivative thereof, so I called my buddy Swervin’ Ervin and asked him to join me. Not being the type of fellow to say no to a good time, he did. And so in the last week we toured local venues and caught some truly amazing shows, even if our ears, brains and livers took a bit of a beating from it. Anyway, here’s the rundown:

Sunday, 11/9/08. The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady. The Orpheum Theater, Boston.

drive-by-truckers.jpgI confess that I went mainly for the Drive-By Truckers, who were the opening act. They’ve been a favorite of mine since I discovered them a couple of years ago. Hailing from Athens, Georgia, they play a gorgeously subversive brand of alt-country, with a heavy emphasis on breaking free from the shackles of small town living and themes of adultery, betrayal and all those other melancholy country staples. Fusing genuine country twang with a love for rock and roll, they’re some of the best of their class. This particular tour was to support their most recent album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark - a decent record, but not their finest (I’m partial to Gangstabilly and Decoration Day). The DBT’s live performances are legendarily energetic and everything I’ve read said I was in for a hell of a time. Sadly, it was not to be. While they were technically sound, their performance was listless and lacking energy. It pains me to say it, since I love them so. Alternating between two frontmen - Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with occasional lead by bassist Shonna Tucker, their deliveries were clear and the sound was tight. But there was just no oomph! None of their legendary showmanship came through. Their slower, more introspective tunes like “Checkout Time in Vegas” and “Zip City” almost sapped the life out of me (and they didn’t play my favorite, “Late For Church”), although the faster-paced Tucker-led jam “Home Field Advantage” was more successful. While the brilliant, anthemic “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” was great, it failed to bring the house down the way I expected.

It wasn’t helped by a terrible lighting job that focused on dark reds that obscured much of the stage and a half-to-three-quarters-full theater, not to mention a show on a Sunday night rarely draws a lively crowd. The poor stage production was all the more frustrating since the Orpheum has hosted some of my all-time favorite concerts - back-in-the-day classics like Primus, Living Colour, Fishbone, The Ref Hot Chili Peppers and Public Enemy have all put on fantastic shows there, and more recently I was absolutely blown away by The Black Keys.

hold_steady.jpgThe Hold Steady were actually a pleasant surprise — a band I knew very little about, they were sharp, clever and fun as hell. Another band that’s apparently well-known for their live shows, they hooked the audience immediately and easily sustained it with their exuberant, goofy energy. I can’t speak to their set list since I’m unfamiliar with their albums, but their lead singer, Craig Finn, is quite the dervish on stage. Their odd blend of dork-rock merged with country sensibilities (call it Alt-Country Weezer, or “Geekabilly,” perhaps?) clearly casts a wide net and draws in a diverse fanbase. I’m looking forward to digging into their catalog and for that reason alone the show was worthwhile.

Thursday, 11/13/08: Reckless Kelly, Nashville Pussy and The Reverend Horton Heat. The Roxy Nightclub, Boston.

Now things get interesting. This was my first time at The Roxy, and it’s a true rock and roll club — a nice, high stage, with three separate bars surrounding it. A perimeter of comfortable seating wraps around a main dance floor — a dance floor that would get serious usage this night. Unfortunately, Ervie and I were busy drinking at each other in some dirthole bar earlier, so we missed all but one song of Reckless Kelly’s set. It was a good song though, for what that’s worth. Then came Nashville Pussy.

NashvillePussy.jpgHoly shit. They stormed onto the stage, grabbed the crowd by the balls and never let go. Everyone was immediately whipped into a frenzy as their hard, nasty psychobilly/cowpunk hybrid sound tore the roof off. Nashville Pussy is shamelessly and unapologetically crude, vulgar and hilarious. Since their formation 10 years ago, they’ve consistently brought the ruckus with songs about fighting, fucking and rock and roll. They’re endlessly cheesy, but not even ironically so. Nashville Pussy just wants you to have a good Goddamn time.

Well, mission accomplished. Frontman Blaine Cartwright set the stage quickly, strutting up to the microphone and wailing away at his guitar. Meanwhile his bass player (Karen Cuda) and lead guitarist (Ruyter Suys, also his wife), dressed in bodice ripping trailer-park glam, accompanied him with lewd hip-thrusting, guitar necks high in the air as they played their leopard-print asses off. They played most of their best tracks, including “Pussy Time” and a scorching rendition of the call-and-response heavies “Come On, Come On” and “Go Motherfucker Go.” Truth be told, it all merged together into a raw, nasty sonic assault that was pure, unadulterated party that included some of my personal favorites, most notably “Hate and Whiskey.” Despite their trashy appearance and crass song titles, the band members are all quite talented — Suys’s screeching metal solos are particularly impressive, and Cuda gives their tracks a thumping, breathtaking pulse with her pounding bass grooves. Even with his scantily clad bandmates drawing the crowds stares, Cartwright is a master at keeping the crowd into it. Never letting off the gas and keeping the in-between banter to a minimum, he’s truly the ringmaster in this banshee hillbilly circus. When he bridged Suys’s solo with a ragged scream in “Say Something Nasty,” the whole crowd went completely nuts. Their act alone made my night.

heat.jpgBut then came The Reverend. With the houselights down and the stage pitch black, the crowd alternated between chants of “J! I! M-B-O!” and “REVEREND!” And then, magically, they were there — The Reverend Horton Heat, Texas natives and veterans and trailblazers of alternative country.. The Reverend Horton Heat, otherwise known as Jim Heath (guitar, vocals), Jimbo Wallace (upright bass, vocals) and Paul Simmons (drums) have been rocking and rolling for over two decades now, bringing their unique blend of rockabilly, surf rock and punk to shows across the nation. They tour relentlessly, have released 10 or so albums and are one of the greatest live acts I have ever seen.

Keeping the trend that Nashville Pussy started, they played and sang at a breakneck pace, barely giving the crowd (or themselves) a chance to breathe. Starting right into the Dick Dale-esque “Big Sky,” they whirly-birded their way through a steady diet of their psychobilly roots. Songs like “Baddest of the Bad,” “Big Red Rocket of Love,” and the crowd-pleasing “Jimbo Song” and “Wiggle Stick” brought the crowd to new heights of feverish madness. Heath, dressed in a Western-cut jacket, is not a young man anymore, and he’s certainly showing his age - he’s puffier and a lot more weathered-looking. But he hasn’t slowed down one bit, still kicking and shimmying and whaling on his guitar like it called his momma a dirty name. Jimbo Wallace, as usual, blew us away with his bass, rumbling and thumping his way through the show. Finally, with their breathtaking finale, they staggered off the stage, leaving the audience gasping for breath…

… only to return minutes later with Blaine Cartwright of Nashville Pussy to perform an absolutely blistering cover of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” It was at that moment that I’m fairly certain that I achieved nirvana.

Saturday, 11/15/08: Murder By Death with William Elliott Whitmore and J. Roddy Walston And The Business. Cafe 939, Boston.

Despite my ravings over the spectacular Thursday night show, this was actually the one I was most excited about — Murder By Death and William Whitmore are two of my favorite discoveries of the last few years. Club 939 is a relatively new venue, a project put together by the Berklee School of Music. It’s a remarkable exercise in simplicity. A large, red-hued room, with a couple of couches on the sides and back… and that’s it. A soundboard in the back, some lights, and a stage. Barely any decor, no bar, no food, no tables, no nothing. It’s a music club with a Spartan aesthetic, and it’s pretty unusual — in a good way. While there is a cozy-looking coffee bar/cafe in the lobby, the lack of booze makes for an unusual concert-going experience. After a couple quick, uncomfortable drinks at the popped-collar and Ugg-boot filled Cactus Club, we made our way over and in.

The opening act, J. Roddy Walston and The Business is a band I’d never heard of. They were actually pretty entertaining, a four-piece southern-fried rock band that you could tell probably never had a slow night. If they lacked anything in technical ability, they damn well made up for it in enthusiasm. Their long-haired, mustachioed bass player thrashed and bucked his way into the crowd’s heart, and the lead singer, alternating between guitar and piano, played like he was Jerry Lee Lewis’s and Mick Jagger’s lovechild. Overall, a raucous, enjoyable performance.

whitmore2.jpgThe change of pace when William Elliott Whitmore took the stage was jarring. With no backing band, it was simply him, a banjo or guitar, and a microphone. For those that don’t know Mr. Whitmore, please for the love of God look him up. His brand of rough-hewn, whiskey-soaked blues is simply gorgeous. Playing relatively simple melodies on the banjo and guitar, using his thumping foot to keep the crowd in rhythm, his voice is a deep, sumptuous bass that’s mixed with hoarse, gravelly cries that sound like genuine pain. Just 30 years old and hailing from Lee County, Iowa, Whitmore is a true blues/folk/country son, yet clearly has serious punk rock roots — perhaps not in sound, but in thought and ideology.

If I had one complaint, it’s that the set was too short — I’d be surprised if it clocked in at more than 40 minutes. But he did manage to hit many of his best tracks, particularly the beautiful “Dry,” an almost meditative version of “The Chariot” as well as “Midnight,” which was likely his best piece of the night. Perhaps the most powerful piece was the opener, “Cold and Dead,” which he performed in near darkness, without any instruments. Whitmore’s affable, disarming demeanor is, while somewhat incongruous, a fitting accompaniment to his melancholy, bittersweet tunes . While I was disappointed not to hear “Diggin’ My Grave” or “Lift My Jug (Song for Hub Cale),” one of his more boisterous tunes, William Elliott Whitmore still gave a mesmerizing performance.

mdeath2.jpgAfter a week’s worth of hard-to-define bands, Bloomington, Indiana’s Murder By Death is perhaps the hardest. An oddball four-piece band consisting of a guitarist/singer, a bass player, a drummer and a cellist (who occasionally plays keys as well), they’ve merged a madman’s mixture of country, punk, morbid Gothic and Western themes into a lush, power-driven mix. Singing songs with topics ranging from the Old West, to games with the Devil to zombies and robots, Murder By Death is a charismatic, enigmatic band. They are four albums into their career together, and their most recent effort, Red of Tooth and Claw continues their evolution into strange, hypnotic, yet fierce music. I’ve seen them once before, sandwiched between alt-metal acts Clutch and Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, and theirs was a furious, shredding performance that, while riveting, didn’t really feel like it did their studio sound justice. I was curious to see how a smaller venue might change their approach.

Well, it didn’t change by much. They once again put on a rowdy, guitar-heavy show that flew their punk rock colors proudly, while still managing to let their country and Gothic roots seep in. The slow-building “Until Morale Improves, The Beatings Will Continue” bled from a melodious, cello-heavy beginning to a more intense, heavy climax. The bouncing, bass-heavy “Boy Decide” got the crowd to stomp their feet (thankfully, because I must admit the crowd was a bit… dull). The faster-paced “Comin’ Home” ended up being a unruly, pleasantly cacophonous romp, and “Ball and Chain” allowed cellist Sarah Balliet to flex her muscles a bit. Lead singer and guitarist Adam Turla has a bellowing, powerful voice that is able to ring loud and true above the robust bass and guitar. Honestly, my chief quibble this time around was that Balliet’s lovely cello was drowned out frequently — whether this was due to poor soundboard management or acoustics or something else, I don’t know. While some tracks, like the swinging, nasty “Sometimes The Line Walks You” aren’t as cello-heavy as others (instead relying on subtle piano in the background, which Balliet didn’t use this time around), in other songs she was simply drowned out. Regardless, their show was, as it was before, a visceral, passionate experience.

So there you have it. Three concerts, nine bands, seven days. It was utterly exhausting and amazingly satisfying. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn on Whitmore’s Ashes to Dust and settle back and relax for a while.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

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Music | November 17, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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