[23 October 2009]
In its high moments, rock and roll is a belief system. It is a philosophy in action against the petty materialism and paternalistic hang-ups of the bourgeois. It combines traditional sentiment and imagery of rebellion with a communal approach to artistic production that is unique among a plethora of musical genres. This is what Bruce Springsteen had in mind a few years ago when he told the New York Times that his music is “community in the making”.
The Righteous Hillbillies, a Chicago-area Southern Rock and Americana band, represent this approach to music making and communal creation that implants artistic integrity as its core. After planting their flag and claiming ownership of every bar in Joliet, Illinois (their musical hometown), and headlining at Chicago rock clubs, Reggie’s and the Elbo Room, among others, they scored a gig opening for The Charlie Daniels Band at the historic Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. Perfectly placed between the release of their first self-titled record, and the coming release of their second album, the performance at the Rialto was not only a landmark for the Hillbillies, but also a precursor to the expansion of their sound to Nashville, where they have dates planned in the upcoming months.
They opened with a bullet train version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison City Blues”, which effortlessly led into “Mexican Rodeo”, a ZZ Top style rocker from the Hillbillies debut album that was transformed into a guitar jam for the Joliet audience. Kevin Wright, the lead guitarist and co-songwriter, played an extended solo that sent a signal of conquest throughout the theater. The Righteous Hillbillies were there not only to provide opening entertainment for a country music legend, but to claim ownership of the entire building.
From that point on, The Hillbillies conducted an assault upon the senses of the audience, lighting fires with every lick and vocal inflection throughout originals such as “Black Jack Mama”, “Wasted On the Westside”, and covers like “Hillbilly Shoes”. The lead singer and co-songwriter, Brent James, whose voice makes one think of Steve Earle with a better range and deeper capability, announced that it had been a longtime dream of his band to play the Rialto, and confirmed the importance of the night by belting, bleeding, and bolstering every note for all it was worth. The country imbued within the songs felt like it was from the Delta, and the rock and roll seemed to be implanted directly from Memphis circa the 1950s. The drummer Kenny Gerk and bassist Johnny Gadeikas provided a steady foundation to the wildness of Wright and James’ acrobatic rock flamboyance.
The Righteous Hillbillies reminded the audience that rock and roll is currently missing a few crucial elements, namely fun and danceability, by reintroducing them to those lost treasures. While rock loyalists may get lost in the angst of the White Stripes or the depressed protest of Radiohead, young music fans are drifting towards hip hop and country for sexual excitement, care-free rebellion, and the joyful resistance to the dominant order that rock and roll, at its peak, offered youth throughout the nation and world. The lack of radio and record company options for danceable blues-based rock and roll creates a similar void of live performance venues for bands that carry that banner north of the Mason-Dixie line. Twenty years ago, the Righteous Hillbillies would have been playing gigs in New York City. Now, they are headed to Nashville. When Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for the E-Street Band and founder of Wicked Cool Records, said that American culture no longer has the ”infrastructure to support greatness”, he could have been referring to the Chicago music scene just as easily as he was indicting the record industry.
Before leaving the stage open for Daniels and company, The Hillbillies performed two songs from their soon to be released sophomore effort. “Not Alone”, a song written as a tribute to Operation Moms, an organization that provides gift packages and letters to American soldiers overseas, was an apolitical show of honor to the sacrifice of servicemen that brought the audience to its feet. They spent this capital of enthusiasm by performing “Righteous”, a honky tonk hell stomp that praises a desirable woman who “likes Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash, AC/DC, Back in Black”. The crowd responded to the power and purpose of the band’s performance by calling out for “one more”, and the Hillbillies obliged by playing a faithful cover of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Pride and Joy”, which felt like a shot of whiskey at closing time after hearing James shout to the rafters and Wright play as if the devil allowed guitarists in that Georgia picking competition that Daniels made famous.
Speaking of the 72-year-old legend, Daniels and his band delivered what anyone would expect: an old time country fiddle show that featured gifted musicians and familiar melodies. However, at a certain point his performance seemed to be that of a musical unit playing all the notes correctly, but failing to hit the right notes. Daniels’ energy and craftsmanship was impressive, but it failed to meet the standard the Hillbillies set at the beginning of the evening. The old time religion of rock and roll defeated the old time country of Charlie.
Daniels also met expectations by expressing right-wing political views during his set. “Simple Man”, a song celebrating vigilantism drew a roar of applause. It is certainly true that political ideology can often be separated from quality of art. However, to see many people raising fists and emphatically cheering along while a singer advocates lynching as a penalty for drug dealing was disconcertedly bizarre, to put it mildly.
Although Daniels’ fans were out in force, the night clearly belonged to the Righteous Hillbillies and their hometown crowd. Following the show at the Rialto, Brent and Kevin played an acoustic set at the Chicago St. Bar and Grill, which is located directly across the street from the Joliet theater where they had played a couple hours earlier.
Their set of mostly covers was elevated by spirited versions of “Get Together” and “For What Its Worth”. Regardless if these hippie anthems were intended as antidotes and protests to Daniels’ violent divisiveness, they certainly felt that way, and with an entire bar full of people singing along, they also felt like communal gestures of togetherness.
Gestures such as these serve as potent reminders of not only rock and roll’s utility, but also the idea that art, in good times, but especially in hard times, functions as a better stimulus package than politics could ever offer. The Righteous Hillbillies presented a stimulus package for their audience that was founded upon southern soul, resolute rock, and “community in the making”, that was not about to be vetoed by anyone within hearing distance of their amplifier.