Sunday, February 24, 2008

Alex Battles Brings It for the Man in Black's Birthday

In recent posts, I have been commenting on Blue Highway's chops not being as pin-point perfect as they can be and The Magnetic Fields' missing a few notes here and there. At last night's show, I'm sure there were a few clams, too, but the show was fundamentally different. Last night's show was about drinking beer, shouting along with the lyrics and dancing. And I can safely claim to have done all three things.

Johnny Cash's 76th birth anniversary is coming up in two days (February 26th). Therefore, last night was the night chosen for the annual Johnny Cash Birthday Bash. I believe that this is the fourth year that Alex Battles has put this show on. It has gained quite a following, so like last year, Brooklyn's Southpaw was sold out several days in advance of the event.

Allan and I made our way down there after a visit to the Heartland Brewery--yes, the same one where I found myself after The Magnetic Fields' show--to have a couple of beers with Ken--who bought multiple rounds of fine beer for me: thanks, Ken!--and his friend Amanda. We made a pit stop for some Mexican food (and a little bit of futbol-watching) on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope (that's Brooklyn, y'all), and then made our way through the line outside of Southpaw.

We walked in for the very end of the Susquehanna Industrial Tool and Die Co.'s set. This New York rockabilly trio was playing some Johnny Cash material from the Sun Records days. They were doing a pretty damn good Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two impersonation with acoustic bass, acoustic guitar and electric guitar instrumentation. Because of where we walked in, Allan and I were right down front, enjoying the show and enjoying all the people who were enjoying the show.

When their set ended, we were treated to a series of Johnny Cash videos that had been put together by Clinton McClung. There was some really great material in there. Particular standouts were Johnny Cash singing "Nasty Dan" with interpolated commentary from Oscar the Grouch on an episode of Sesame Street and an elongated version of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" from the Johnny Cash Show that featured Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters and the Statler Brothers. Everyone sang along with the projection screen and raised beers to complement the late John R. Cash.

WNYU's Honky Tonk Radio Girl supplied some excellent filler music, including Wynonie Harris' "Bloodshot Eyes" and a reggae version of "Country Roads."

And then Alex Battles and the Whisky Rebellion took the stage for the feature event: a cover-to-cover rendition of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison album. And they simply brought it.

The Whisky Rebellion line-up last night was the great Shaky Dave (also of the M Shanghai String Band) on harmonica, the Great Sammo on washboard and resonator guitar, the Old Professor on lead guitar, mighty Tom Mayer (formerly of WKCR) on upright bass and Smilin' Charlie Shaw on drums (once a member of the 5 Chinese Brothers and these days playing bass or drums with pretty much everyone). Strumming his sparkling red acoustic guitar--a Takamine if my eyes didn't deceive me--Alex Battles was in total control from the opening strum of "Folsom Prison Blues." The band played terrifically: Battles would set the tempo with a measure of chops on his guitar, and they would just launch into it.

The album went in order, and these songs are all stand-outs to begin with: "Dark as a Dungeon," "I Still Miss Someone," "25 Minutes to Go," "Long Black Veil," "Jackson," "I Got Stripes," "Green, Green Grass of Home." Wow! It was non-stop excellence. Shaky Dave's harp was the featured instrument on "Orange Blossom Special." Sammo did a seriously strong rendition of "I Still Miss Someone." Jessica Rose and Mony Falcone came out to sing "Jackson." The Dock Oscar Gospel Quartet (with Ebie Carter and Becky, the Honky Tonk Radio Girl) were there for "Greystone Chapel" and a bunch of other numbers, too. The crowd was singing along and dancing the whole time. I was swilling Miller High Life. What a night!

And then they kept going! After reaching the end of the album, Battles busted out some more Cash, some of his own songs and some non-Cash covers. First, the horns came out--two trumpets--for "Ring of Fire" and then a truly brilliant "When the Saints Go Marching In." The show could have ended right there, as far as I was concerned: "When the Saints" was simply awesome. But then we got a song about hockey (allegedly by the Johnny Cash of Canada), "Pennsylvania" (an excellent, excellent tune), "Raining in Brooklyn" (which you can find on Battles' MySpace page along with the excellent "Jesus Wore Flip-Flops," which the band did not play last night but did play on WKCR's Tennessee Border Show last Sunday), "It Ain't Me That Misses You; It's the Cat," "Polka at Your Wedding," "The Hokey Pokey" (yes.), "Hong Kong Collision" (a killer rockabilly tune also on the MySpace page), "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Walk the Line" and "Goodnight Irene." The band played tight through all of these tunes, jumping right in with little warning and playing at full throttle. One memory--I'm not sure exactly when it happened--was when Tom Mayer had his bass at a 30-degree angle to the ground and was just pounding away on it. It was so free; it was so energized; it was so characteristic of the night. Wow-squared!

A great time was had by all. Major kudos to Alex Battles for producing such a high-quality event and for bringing such great music to the stage himself.

1 comment:

Isorski said...

Wow - this sounds great! Maybe I will try to go next year. Thanks for the report. I made a Cash birthday post yesterday and also reviewed his autobiography on my blog if you are interested. You may need to scroll down to see it all.