Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early
First came the pairing of R.L. Burnside with New York noise children the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. That album left a welt, but next came the slap that really left them reeling. R.L. Burnside, the real McCoy purveyor of the Mississippi blues, strumming and wailing away on the very same recording with Beck producer Tom Rothrock's snappy, not-so-blockrockin' beats. Come on In was the album purists hated and critics loved to hate. Rothrock and Burnside were a match made in the tasteless depths of hell, or so intoned the commentary.
R.L. himself doesn't seem to mind. If the capacity crowd at the Euclid Tavern was any indication, all that updatification has, if nothing else, garnered him a thick and juicy fan base. And, as for Come on In, it's not quite the blasphemy naysayers make it out to be. Rothrock's respectful intrusions hardly deconstruct or alter Burnside; his presence is more of an irritant.
When he plays live, it's all about Burnside, whose monolithic blues functions like a force of nature. The few songs Burnside played solo had a visceral intimacy and intensity. When joined onstage by second guitarist Kenny Brown and Burnside's grandson, Cedric Burnside, the trio retained all the intimacy and doubled the intensity. Cedric was an indefatigable rhythm machine, and Brown kept up the pressure with wild slide work and spiky fills.
Openers Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early shared the same musical sphere as Burnside, giving a frayed-edge blues guitar big propulsion via the drum set. For Williams, the guitar work--and especially the slide business--was an inexact science. He didn't fuss too much over the precise note, so long as he got a note in the right place. Often, it sounded as though Williams accompanied Early's march-style drumming and not the other way around. The two had their slower moments--a broken string interlude, and an eyebrow-raising blues/Muzak fusion--but, for the most part, their raw, rhythmic sound gave good shine to old songs like "Motherless Child" and "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee." Of note was their original, a train-wreck blues lament to the 1942 Natchez dance club fire.
Derek Trucks Band
Much has been written about Derek Trucks--the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks--and his astounding prowess as a slide guitarist. It's tempting to say that he's great for his age. Truth is, there may be only a handful of players of any age who can lay a glove on him, and his musical instincts as writer and arranger are impeccable. Who opens a rock show with John Coltrane or turns a guitar into a sound effects box with his bare hands?
Saying nary a word throughout an hour-long performance, Trucks led his talented group through a mixture of improv rock and jazz that bore almost no resemblance to slide guitar as most people have heard it. Even a done-to-death song like "Amazing Grace" benefited from his snake-charming fretwork, and the crowd got a headliner's performance from an opener.
Two ex-Allman Brothers--guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody--belong to the Southern power trio Gov't Mule, but, at times, the band sounded more like Birmingham, England than Birmingham, Alabama. Haynes and Woody are heavier and more experimental than their ex-bandmates. The interplay of the three (Matt Abts on drums) was airtight, and with not a missed cue in a nearly three-hour concert, the collective sound was far fuller and more intricate than would be expected from a trio.
Early favorites, like "Thorazine Shuffle" and "Mule," shared billing with new pieces, like "Soul Shine" and a half-hour version of the Mongo Santa-Maria track "Afro-Blue," which brought Trucks and a few of his cohorts back for an encore. The exchanges between players approached those of the Allmans, but Haynes and Trucks's spontaneous harmonizing was a crowd favorite.
Some would quibble (as I occasionally did) with the sometimes gratuitous length of some of the songs, but few in the packed and surprisingly co-ed audience seemed to mind.
The V-Roys performed in front of a Grog Shop audience made artificially small by the fact the St. Paddy's Day revelers had more than likely partied themselves out by the time the four gents from Tennessee took the stage just after midnight. The unfortunate aspect of that was that the V's probably didn't have a chance to win over any converts to their eclectic brand of melodic, guitar-driven Americana. The band has released two albums produced by the Steve Earle-Ray Kennedy collaboration. Their most recent disc, All About Town, was one of the musical joys of 1998.
The V's offered a workmanlike show. Nothing was terribly memorable and nothing was displeasing, either. This is a rock band with a tough beauty, and just doing its material straight is enough. The set began with an electrified version of Neil Young's 25-year-old acoustic love song "Motion Pictures," before the V's dived into their own material--"Cry," from the 1996 album Just Add Ice, and "Mary," from the latest CD. The V's did a 22-song set in about an hour and a half. Ten of the twelve songs from All About Town made the roster, while seven came off Just Add Ice.
The regular set began to close nice and easy, but finished nice and rough, with guitarist Scott Miller soloing on "Virginia Way," before the group jumped in and segued into "Wind Down." "Sooner Or Later" was the V-Roys' encore.
The Vibrasonics, with members from Elyria, Euclid, and Lakewood, are an uncompromising traditional country band. The group has been together since last summer and claims to be working on writing its own material, though only two of the eleven songs they performed were self-penned.
Western Electric answers the musical question, Whatever happened to the Tumbleweeds? Ash Hilliard, the mastermind behind that very promising country band, is fronting this new amalgamation, playing only its second gig. The band, which sounds like Poco with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe on vocals, did mostly Hilliard-composed tunes in a twelve-song set, the exceptions being Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Lodi" and the bluegrass standard "Man of Constant Sorrow."