In the last year, Manhattanites have twice gotten the chance to hear local concerts by well-known survivors of the 1980s Rockabilly revival. Brian Setzer brought his big band to the McCain stage last December. Last Friday we saw Reverend Horton Heat in the Wareham Theater.
Rockabilly was originally a lively merging of swing with country, music small bands (perhaps especially guitar trios) could play at dances. Carl Perkins popularized it. Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran were among the musicians known for it. It is a hard-charging music characterized by a few song patterns, hard changes, and use of tape echo. Think of Elvis singing “That’s All Right Mama” and you’ll have the essence of the genre, though it is now played faster.
Texan Heat (a.k.a. Jim Heath) and his sidemen bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla tour extensively, playing songs that are long by Rockabilly standards and ones that show the influence of late 1960s psychedelic music and of early 1960s Californian Dick “King of the Surf Guitar” Dale. But then, the Heat band isn’t crusading for musical purity any more than they are traveling as a museum exhibition. Rather, they are trying to entertain.
And of that they do a fine job. Heat, who looks unnervingly like Henry Iba, is a skilled guitar technician whose Gretsch semi-hollow, autograph model does tricks and runs precisely over patterns. He is also a competent singer who may be known more for growls and percussive yells than for his seemingly effortless line enunciation.
He is mild mannered on stage, which suits his characteristic throwaway sense of humor—among the songs in his nearly twenty song set were ones called “Martini Time,” “Zombie Dumb,” and the inevitable “Psychobilly Freakout.”
We also heard “Jimbo Song,” which Heat told us was inspired by his bass player, and the guitarist and Jimbo traded instruments for a version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Churilla brought some techniques borrowed from Metal—specifically the use of a double bass drum pedal—to personalize the band’s sound. His lengthy solo during the group’s encore was surprisingly interesting, and his rhythm throughout was steady.
The opening acts also proved to be interesting. Heat is traveling with San Antonio’s likeable Pinata Protest. This black-clad quartet was led by accordion and “pocket trumpet” playing Alvero del Norte, a substantial talent who mugged his way through their set.
It was all Tex-Mex punk—all very brief songs, including a version of “La Cucaracha” and one which began and ended with an imitation of a child’s music box tune played solo on the squeeze box. The material went by so fast that there was no time for instrumental solos, though perhaps that was because the band had recently taken on a new guitarist.
The evening actually began at eight with a forty-five minute set by Red Eye Gravy, a four man band from Talaqua, Oklahoma. Led by its lead singer and acoustic guitar player, this outfit must have reminded old timers of the Pott County Pork and Beans Band. The bassist wore a uniform shirt from a service station.
The band played well together, but their self-identified “cow punk” songs probably were pretty similar, one after another, in form and rate. Their set was hexed by an evolving mix, though those experimental adjustments probably helped the sound for Pinata Protest and Rev. Horton Heat.
With minimal advertising, the show drew a fair crowd and a diverse one. At $20 a ticket for nearly four hours of live music, those in attendance certainly got their money’s worth.
And they got musical samples of some of what small bands have been trying to do in the period since sales charts and music broadcasting became decentralized and dancing stopped providing the main motivation for young people seeking musical entertainment—punk, tex mex, and revival rockabilly. So maybe the show wasn’t intended as a history lesson, but there was one there for those discerning enough to find it.