Darkness and sweat: these are the lasting impressions from the only time I was fortunate to witness the now-defunct 16 Horsepower in concert back in 2001. Standing right in front of the stage at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, I felt more like I was in the front pew in a candlelit cathedral, presided over by one of rock’s most singularly driven frontmen. David Eugene Edwards performed seated, as was (and is) his wont, no matter how aggressively his songs burst forth from bandoneon, banjo, or slide guitar. At certain moments, his head of straw-colored hair would thrash and jerk, sending beads of sweat flying from the dimly lit stage. But what made the performance more thrilling, bewildering, even terrifying than a typical loud rock or punk show was the subject matter of the songs; all of this feverish passion and gothic ambience was in service of songs testifying to the “wonder workin’ power in the precious blood of the Lamb”, to quote the band’s own “Strong Man”.
Though the 16 Horsepower’s commercial reach, even when initially backed by ye olde A&M label, never went as far as it could or should have stateside, those who were lucky enough to catch on hung on, in part because the Pentecostal Christianity that filled Edwards’s songs with symbols, allusions, and purpose, felt foreign and mysterious. With the most prominent religious-minded individuals in the media seeming either bigots or Ned Flanders, songs like “Black Soul Choir” and “Golden Rope” made Christianity seem dangerous, even sexy, paired as it were with the band’s hillbilly punk stomp and Edwards’s possessed yowl. Happily, though 16HP split in 2005, it appears with the release of Live: March 2001 that their impact created a large enough cult to warrant such (and hopefully future) releases. Recorded in Europe (either in Brussels or Paris according to the setlist; the liner notes do not say which) in support of their third full-length, Secret South, the two-CD set provides a solid example of both their gravity and ferocity, though it unfortunately highlights some of their weakest material.
The 16 Horsepower of Secret South and of 2001 was bulkier than previous incarnations. With guitarist Stephen Taylor replacing Jeffrey Paul Norlander, the band’s sound grew broader, more metallic, and the songs on that album (nearly all of which are performed here) tend to favor blunt force over agility and surprise. Live: March 2001 showcases a band with the tightest control of its powers; however it’s clear from one song to the next on which material those powers are best employed. The set starts with two of the band’s most iconic songs. “American Wheeze” (which also opens the previous 16HP live collection, Hoarse) rises out of a pre-performance recording of creepy-ass chanting with its familiar and haunting bandoneon pattern. “You don’t understand dear man / The little angel held out her hand / Saying Father, Father I love you / Oh, pray Jesus I got you” Edwards sings just before the rest of the band crashes in, and if those lyrics don’t clench your gut reading them on the page, they are truly hair-raising in the band’s hands. “I Seen What I Saw” also demonstrates the band’s innate grasp of dynamics. Pauses and lulls build tension as instruments are singled or cut out, signatures shift, and Edwards howls like the believer he is.
But then comes a long stretch of Secret South tracks that are hit or miss. The band’s cover of traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” is flat and overlong, while “Cinder Alley” is just plain overwrought. The band’s dullest moments still hold their intrigue mostly because Edwards is damn near always compelling, but I still find myself waiting patiently for the band’s older, spryer material (skipping through tracks on live albums feels too much like cheating). When early cuts “Harm’s Way” and “Haw” finally work their way into the show, it’s like jumping into a favorite swimming hole in the dead heat of summer. The songs swing and swagger with an ease most of their newer counterparts lack. However “Praying Arm Lane”, with its bowed bass, rambling banjo, and shades of “Rawhide” feels strong, and the gorgeous melodies of “Poor Mouth” make it the best of the band’s chunkier offerings.
Still, Live: March 2001 appears to prove that the band was at its best when limber and feral, the weight of its philosophy better served by contrast than with equally heavy constructs. The final encore of the night bears this out completely, beginning with a elegantly mournful cover of “Partisan” (made most famous by Leonard Cohen), followed by the closing, two-song assault of “Coal Black Horses” and “Dead Run”. It’s a breathless finish to an uneven night that captured 16 Horsepower at its most bullish, but not necessarily its best. For that, hopefully there will be more live documents that span the career of one of the most woefully under-appreciated bands of the last 15 years.