It’s particularly fitting that the son of Jessi Colter and the late Waylon Jennings should be at the forefront of a brand new movement calling itself “Outlaw Country,” and that Shooter Jennings’s radio show on Sirius Satellite, “Electric Rodeo,” is one of the sparks that ignited it. Just like his father before him, Jennings is a rebellious, guitar-slinging singer and deejay (Waylon worked at a radio station in Lubbock, Texas, in the late ‘50s) who doesn’t care if he plays rock ‘n’ roll (folk in his daddy’s case) with a vein of pure country running through it, or vice versa. He just likes to mix things up.
With his first band, the Los Angeles-based Stargunn, Jennings concentrated solely on a brand of rock heavily influenced by the likes of Guns ‘n’ Roses before he dissolved them in March 2003 and headed for the Big Apple. The singer has since conceded, “I was a posing rocker—a country guy trying to be something he wasn’t.” It seems natural, then, that his new outfit the .357’s, formed with Leroy Powell on lead guitar, bass guitarist Ted Russell Kamp and drummer Bryan Keeling, should be a solid country band with a rock-and-roll flavour that marries the raunchy swagger of Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and the steaming electric blues of Led Zeppelin with the legacy of Waylon, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. In fact, the oddest thing going on here is that this fresh injection of country-rock has found a home in New York City rather than Texas.
And New York is exactly where Jennings decided to capture the band’s raucous set Live at Irving Plaza 4.18.06, with an introduction by none other than “Little Steven” Van Zandt. This third release from the band sounds nothing like one of those live stop-gap albums where the record label is filling in time between albums. Instead, this is a solid outing reworking songs honed by constant touring that are all taken from either the band’s sophomore release Electric Rodeo (released only six months before) or their first album back in 2005, Put the “O” Back in Country. If anything, these guys seriously need to take a break.
However, it ain’t going to happen any time soon, judging by the exhilarating squal of electric blues guitar accompanied by tight pounding drums that introduces the band, and their rockin’ country, to the crowd with the roll of “Electric Rodeo”. When Jennings’ voice digs deep to sing, “My daddy was a loaded gun / He said it ain’t no fun living on the run, son / Everywhere I go trouble seems to follow,” you realise you’re in the heart of modern outlaw country. The lonesome sound of a harmonica and some excellent country-blues fret-work follows, on the ballad “Gone to Carolina”, with Jennings’ husky vocals slowing things down until a crescendo of guitar takes the song home. Next up is a rockin’ outlaw account, “Busted in Baylor County”, which makes use of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” while drawing on the band’s first-hand experience of getting busted for drugs down in Texas—on the way to their third gig ever.
It’s the more personal songs, which either delve into Jennings’s past experiences or directly reference his father, that work best. This is especially true for the laid-back Skynyrd-inflected stoner number “Southern Comfort”, with an atmospheric a-cappella moment by the band that details the powerful draw of the family homestead in Nashville whilst on the road. When he sings, “My education came from reading the road signs,” you remember this guy grew up on a tour bus and is now “lost in the game.” But the most affecting number of all is his pure outlaw-country tribute to his father, “It Ain’t Easy”.
Jennings and the .357’s are definitely on their own trip, and bring with them a fresh breeze to blow the cobwebs off country music. Listen to the melancholy slide guitar accompanied by Jennings’ Texas drawl on “Lonesome Blues” or the slow-building blues ‘n’ boogie keyboard that opens “Manifesto No 1” just before it turns into a foot-stompin’, honky-tonk hoedown, and you will hear an untamed independent voice calling from Irving Plaza’s darkened stage.