BR-549 and Southern Culture on the Skids
Metro, Chicago 11/20/2002
It was a bit disappointing not to have a full house on hand Wednesday night at Metro for the great double bill of Nashville’s BR-549 and Chapel Hill, NC’s Southern Culture on the Skids. But the three quarters-full or so crowd that did come in from the spitting rain and wind outside pushed up all close to the stage, and I can honestly say that Wednesday night’s show was the first time I’ve had an obstructed view of the action due to a predominance of cowboy hats in the audience. Yee-ha. Let’s get neighborly!
BR-549 sounds, talks, and acts exactly as you’d expect a group of guys who have a standing invitation to play The Grand Ole Opry would. With bolo ties in place, vintage trap kit set, and an array of gorgeous Gretsch guitars primed for optimum twang, the fellas eased into a set of charming honky-tonk music that put grins on faces like they were going out of style. Moving fluidly from the barroom boogie of “Too Lazy To Work, To Scared To Steal” slow-burn crooners that showcased the band’s perfect Everly Brothers (or Louvin Brothers, for that matter) harmonies and some great instrumental sidework from a guy that my man Trey and I swore was David Spade. Switching from autoharp to fiddle to a miniaturized custom Fender job in a Hollywood minute, “Spade” added all the color the songs needed to appeal to the growing crowd on hand.
The show’s 21-and-over status was appreciated, as some of BR-549‘s more Hank Sr.-ish moments and articulated, professional Nashville appearance might have led some young wiseacres to do that knee-slappin’ cowboy dance that white people who don’t understand Country music always break into when they hear a hiccup beat or a see a guy hacking away at a fiddle. Thankfully, the crowd was heavy on the rockabilly dudes and their Betty Page girlfriends, and these were not those people.
One of the things that made Wednesday night’s show so enjoyable were the songs themselves, and the stories they told. Storytelling doesn’t really exist in the pop venue; oftentimes pop songs suggest a story, or delineate characters that provide a framework on which the listener can enjoy the song and its hook. But the Country and honky-tonk tradition that BR-549 and Southern Culture are mining is rich with stories, and part of the fun of the live show is listening to these tales unfold.
Pretty soon it was time for Southern Culture to crank their engine. After a rough few moments in first gear where the organ was muddy and Mary Huff’s bass tone dominated, the band hit their cruising speed. Like pawing through a lawn sale stack of old LP’s, SCOTS threw in a rollicking cover of The Pretty Things’ “Midnight To Six,” crowd-pleasers like Huff’s Yma Sumac-vibe’d “House of Bamboo,” and enough Link Wray to rumble Wrigley Field’s right field bleachers 2 blocks away. Not bad for a band of loonies who feature a stand-up drummer who’s so diminutive that he looks like he’s sitting down (with a 12″ kick drum!). Like the B-52’s buzzing from too many barbecue sandwiches and Green River, Southern Culture delivered a hearty helping of comedy along with their main entrée of greasy, good-timin’ chicken music. My friend certainly felt it. She’ll remain nameless because I can’t wear an athletic supporter ALL the time. But when Southern Culture came back out for their encore and decided they needed a few amateur go-go dancers to help them out, she climbed onto that stage faster than Courtney Cox in that “Dancing In The Dark” video. Doing the swim along with the band’s squinty-eyed hipshake, my friend was the consummate professional. Shit, maybe she can hitch a ride with the guys in BR-549 down to the Opry and fire up her Goldie Hawn-on-Hullabaloo act in Music City.
After their dance troupe had left the stage, Southern Culture brought out BR-549 for a punk-meets-podunk reversion of the classic “Nuclear Power.” It really illustrated the two bands’ collective ability to be plenty of things to plenty of people. The punk rock guys can dig the vintage gear and the occasional power chord. The rockabilly guys (and gals) can swing to the crazy beat. The indie rockers can appreciate the irony of a guy in an ascot singing like Buddy Holly in 2002 at a rock club. Even the folks who watch that line-dancing show on CMT can do their thing, and maybe learn a bit about Jello Biafra or Samhain from the chains-clad fellow in combat boots smoking a cigarette to their left.
BR-549 and Southern Culture on the Skids are touring now, so put on your belt and go get some chicken!