26 August 2002: Mercury Lounge New York
JOHN TRUDELL + BAD DOG
29 August 2002: National Museum of the American Indian New York
Younger Than Yesterday
The week of August 26 was a whirlwind of wisdom, aspected differently per the given age of the representative band. Athens, Georgia’s Southern Bitch launched the week off right. The kick-ass quartet believes in barebones instrumentation—- the classic guitars, bass, drums set-up—and hardcore riffs. Whether they know it or not, their performance at Downtown’s Mercury Lounge positions Adam Musick’s (perfect surname) outfit squarely in the southern “rock” renaissance currently afoot. Of course, just as Georgia boy Gram Parsons dismissed the genre he’s called the patron saint of as “country-rock (ugh!) plastic dry-fuck”, “southern rock” is a hotly contested oxymoron but the peculiar energy that Southern Bitch brings to their music, the spark in their approach is undeniably wrought by the southeast. The record, Thunderbolt (Treblehook Records), may be slightly misleading regarding the full-tilt of their power but don’t y’all dare sleep on Southern Bitch. At the very least, going to the show, you’ll get a great T-shirt of a devil gal straddling a bale of hay. Yet if you’re sharp enough to observe deeply, it will quickly become evident that this band fronted by young twenty-somethings has got the heart and soul you crave in spades. And Wendy Musick, Adam’s wife & guitarist/vocalist, has replaced Keith Richards as the planet’s Most Rock N Roll Being it just hasn’t been officially announced yet. Told Wendy after the gig that now you look up “rock n roll” in the Encyclopædia Africana and there’s a picture of her snarling. She got a kick out of that.
Closed the run of concerts with a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green, virtually the southernmost tip of Manhattan. You surface from the subway with folks racing to catch the Staten Island Ferry. Between that and the overcast hues of twilight, one tends to ever feel as if stepping into another country. That sense of the faraway was met by that Thursday evening’s visitor to Gotham: Santee Dakota poet (and sometime thespian) John Trudell. The previous sentence is not meant to present Trudell as the inscrutable Plains Indian but rather to suggest that the incantatory power of his words, as backed by his three piece blues rock band Bad Dog, transfigured the sterile space of the museum’s auditorium and transported every attendee into a mental and spiritual landscape beyond the concrete confines of the mundane. His latest record Bone Days (Daemon), produced by Angelina Jolie who, like Trudell, is inquisitive about social injustice and passionate about focusing on the human element in never-ending political crossfires, is highly recommended as a recurring passport to that state. Trudell’s voice was that of the man beyond time who speaks truth to power, his every croon and exhortation complemented by the chants of Apache-Hopi Quiltman. As with wise elders everywhere, whether they be sitting recounting the ways of the People beneath a baobab tree in the Sahel or forming the drum circle at powwow, the combined realness of Trudell and Quiltman untangled and reinvigorated the audience. The result was the appeal for three electrifying encores.
If Chris Hillman didn’t bring as much channeled life force to his Bottom Line appearance, it doesn’t mean the show was not sublime. Trading wisecracks and road reminiscences with accompanist Herb Pedersen who he’s known since late adolescence, Hillman represented the midway point of Man’s development. He is old enough to remember parts of Youth fondly but also to have learnt from it; he is not too old that he cannot still encounter adventure and learn. The most youthful and vigorous of the remaining former Byrds (and among many of his 1960s rock/Laurel Canyon peers), Hillman looked quite like the man who could easily sing, as his most famous band once did (via Dylan): “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
Where Southern Bitch were loud and full of piss and John Trudell was quietly displaying a range of masks from sorrowful to angry to menacing, Hillman & Pedersen came off like an old soft shoe caressing for your delight in the warm side parlor. Virtually everyone present was a fan(atic) of some stage of Hillman’s career, be it the early bluegrass combos in southern California where he hails from, the Byrds folk-rock era, the Flying Burrito Brothers/Manassas/Desert Rose Band country-rock gatherings or various solo and duo experiments with peers in Americana. Pedersen’s credentials are almost as auspicious having led his own Pine Valley Boys in the Bay Area and now the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, been a part of the Dillards and the Desert Rose Band, and a career as in-demand Nashville session player. The interplay between the two, as they almost seamlessly revisited many parameters of the postwar country songbook, is the sort that only arises between old comrades and virtuoso pickers.
Hillman joked that they were riding the O, Brother Where Art Thou? gravy train, grateful to the phenomenon for making a space on the hit parade and air waves for hillbilly music and other roots forms. His roll call of past greats—- the Burritos, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Dillards, Peter Rowan, the DRB—- heralded a current return to the source. But no Nudie suits (alas). With Hillman on mandolin and Pedersen on acoustic guitar, the two alternated lead vocals or harmonized sweetly. Just listen to their bipartite jukebox: “Love Reunited”, the DRB’s first hit on the country charts from 1987, an anti-Nashville song in that it described keeping a marriage together; “A Heart Always True”, Pedersen’s Laurel Canyon Ramblers bluegrass tune co-written with his wife of 25 years and reduced from 56 verses to 4; the Wilbur Brothers’ “Somebody’s Back In Town” from the 1950s, a precursor to a certain Eagles tune (Pedersen half-mockingly accused Don Henley of direct theft); a virtual electric gospel Gram Parsons wrote after crashing his motorcycle in the canyon entitled “Wheels”; “I Hear A Voice Calling” featuring Pedersen’s high tenor especially well, a Stanley Brothers song the friends first heard circa 1961 as it was harder in those days for southern Californians to see their hillbilly heroes live; their own “Hard Times”; Charlie Monroe’s “The Old Cross Road” which both Hillman and Pedersen had recorded or performed in their early bluegrass bands; the Byrds’ legendary “Turn! Turn! Turn!” re-arranged for mandolin, perhaps the only pop hit drawn from Ecclesiastes; Ray Price’s Cajun-styled “You Done Me Wrong” from the new CD Way Out West; the Louvins’ “You’re Learning”; Pedersen’s early ‘70s working musician on the road tale covered by everyone from Johnny Rivers to Elton John, “Wait A Minute”; the obligatory country version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”; and Merle Travis’ “I Am A Pilgrim”.
“Good Year” is a song Steve Hill and Hillman co-wrote nine months prior to 9/11. The latter and Pedersen performed it at Bottom Line with particular feeling, singing of “the darkest black to a shade of blue” and “every morning is a blessing,” having visited Ground Zero earlier in the day, this trip their first to New York since the events of last September. The song’s chorus is a fitting hymn for those of us still rolling with the world’s punches:
Down the back road
Through the memory
Let the darkness disappear
Hold me under
Sound the thunder
I’ve got a way out of here
Oh it’s gonna be a good year
These two men in the middle of life jived between songs, rather like their ‘60s showbiz contemporaries the Smothers Brothers, going on about having senior moments and needing “video facelifts” (Pedersen’s coinage) to compete in today’s rock and pop marketplace. Yes Hillman played “Hickory Wind” for an encore—after some fool yelled for the Eagles’ “Desperado” to which Pedersen wryly quipped “We don’t do theirs, they don’t do ours”—and forgot most of the words then enlisted us to help him out (which everyone did with relish). However, offering everything from barroom satoris like “ go back with your honky-tonk kind” to revisiting Gram’s Dixie-flavored boast of “we’re not afraid to ride, we’re not afraid to die” to the very act of closing with the delicate utopian vision of a “heaven’s lullaby” demonstrated that these aging pardners are more than capable of keeping the fabric of American life vibrant by pickin’ their way into the unknown.