Worshipping in the Church of Rockabilly


Last night I went to see a show at the Showbox.

I arrived late, so I did not see Lincoln Durham. I was moderately disappointed, but it is a standing room only show so I knew that I was going to be on my feet for several hours, and I’m not 21 (or even 51) anymore, so I decided to arrive late to maximize my time with the bands that I really came to see.

I enjoy the music of the Legendary Shack Shakers. I have never seen them in concert.  I honestly did not know what to expect.

The lead singer / harmonica / banjo player, J.D. Wilkes, was a revelation. The other band members were, in comparison, staid. The drummer in particular looked almost bored.

However, J.D….

He is, how do I put this, kind of a dork. Don’t get me wrong, he has great presence, a good voice, kills on the harmonica, and picks away at the banjo. He is a force on the stage, making up for the technically proficient but somewhat plodding personalities of the rest of the band.

It’s just that he has none of the lead singer, big swinging dick, swagger. He mugs, pratfalls, makes corny jokes (calling one of his songs, hobo-phobic), all with eyes bulging out. He generally acts like one of the country-fried bit players on the old Hee Haw show.

OK, except for the times when he put his hand down his pants, groped around, and pretended to fling his pubes at the audience.  I don’t remember seeing that on Hee Haw.

He ended up being some weird combination of Iggy Pop and Red Skelton (for those too young for Red Skelton, feel free to go to youtube now; I’ll wait), and amazingly enough, it works. I guess that I shouldn’t be too surprised since he’s been doing it now for over twenty years.

And then came the Reverend.

I’d seen the Rev several years ago. The drummer changes, but he and the stand up bassist, Jimbo Wallace, have been rocking it for thirty years.

He still brings it. Whatever you want to call it: rockabilly, psychobilly, or punkabilly, it is hard, fast, driving music. From the beginning, he had the crowd up, dancing, and jumping.

At one point, he and Jimbo swapped instruments to play Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie. Jimbo was jamming on the guitar and the Rev was driving it with the bass with not even a beat loss with the switch.

The Rev has an interesting stage presence. It’s as if at some point someone told him that he needs to smile more on stage. For him, it comes out as a series of fake smiles, grimaces, and at best snarky smirks.

On the bill was Unknown Hinson. I just assumed that he was opening, but no, he was a featured artist. So, at a certain point in the show, the Rev called Hinson on-stage and he proceeded to lead several songs, while the Rev faded into the background.

The Unknown Hinson is a kind of a Sacha Baron Cohen kind of dude. Hinson is clearly a character (with extreme fake eyebrows and blacked out teeth) with a whole backstory of typical country hick misfortune. He basically never breaks character, whether before, after, or during the show.

Hinson is considered such a seminal figure within the weird, I guess you could call it underground psychobilly world, that Hank Williams III has a tattoo of him.

However, having said all of that, I came to the show expecting a full Reverend Horton Heat concert, so I was kind of disappointed to see the Rev fade into the background during the second half. In fact, it reached the point (and it was getting late plus I had a dog to take care of) that I ended up leaving while the show was still going on.

Even though, I left, I had an absolute blast.

It did get me thinking…


I’ve always wondered how musicians feel about touring.

I’m a musician (I’m pretending now, I’m totally not that). I’m a creative person. I sit in the studio one day and I have a brilliant flash of inspiration. I lay the track down. I release it and it becomes a hit. It makes my career and it makes my livelihood (puts food on the table for me and my loved ones) for possibly decades to come.

And now I have to play that stupid song literally thousands of times. I have more flashes of inspirations, possibly ones that I feel are even more creative and/or important, but my fans don’t care; they just want to hear the hits from decades back.

The Legendary Shack Shakers brought down the house with Blood on the Bluegrass (2003) and Swampblood (2007). The Rev brought the house down with Bales of Cocaine (1993), Baddest of the Bad (1994), and Psycobilly Freakout (1991).

Do they hate these songs now? Do they hate the people that scream for them and would get upset if they didn’t play them? Or do they feed off the excitement / energy of the crowd  and still enjoy it?

That reminds me of two other things (sorry, I’m rambling). Several years ago, I went to see X on New Year’s Eve. The entire show was them replaying, in the same order, the Los Angeles album. The intermission was between side one and side two (I kid you not). Los Angeles came out in 1981. I think that I went to see that show in 2011 (makes sense, thirty year anniversary). If you had told the band members in 1981 that thirty years later they’d still be playing that album, would they have signed up or run screaming?

The other memory was when I went to a Bob Dylan concert. Mark Knopfler, from Dire Straits, opened for him. Fully expecting to hear Dire Straits songs, the crowd was excited to see Knopfler.

I’m not sure how to describe the set that Knopfler played. At best it could be described as sea shanties. It was very confusing. Knopfler changed guitars nearly every song. He’d tune it up, and then launch into another shanty. At one point a guitar that was actually featured on one of the Dire Straits albums was brought out to him (Brothers in Arms maybe?), at which point the crowd started to buzz. Finally, we’re going to hear his greats! Nope (And now I’m on a Yankee ship/Hauling on sheets and braces)!

It was a great example of a very rich, successful, secure artist who has zero fucks to give. On the one hand, as a fan, I was disappointed, but on another, I can only clap and say, well played, Sir, well played!




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