[7 June 2011]
Way out on the southwest outskirts of San Antonio lies the town of Helotes, also home to Floores Country Store, a famous country music venue. There’s no doubt that San Antone has been lacking in proper mid-size rock ‘n’ roll venues, so the newish contender Josabi’s is a welcome addition to the South Texas music scene. Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses sort of exemplify that scene with a classic Texas blend of blues, rock, country and Americana, lending this show something of a homecoming feel.
Bingham saw his profile skyrocket after co-writing “The Weary Kind”, the Oscar-winning hit song from the film Crazy Heart. But while some in the crowd may look country, they must know this is more of a rock ‘n’ roll band. This becomes apparent during the evening’s many sing-alongs, as it’s obvious most in attendance have seen Bingham before. So they also know that the Dead Horses like to do some jamming. There are few modern troubadors who deliver such music with as soulful a voice as Bingham, also known for his deep lyrics. Some of the tunes may sound like they come from a standard bluesy-Americana influence, but the deeper lyrics indicate that Bingham is his own man.
The sound system isn’t quite as large or crisp as at larger venues like Stubbs BBQ in Austin, but those concerns expressed on Yelp about the bad sound at Josabi’s thankfully turn out to be unfounded. It was even quite possible to catch some of NBA playoff game (between the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder) at the semi-enclosed bar toward the rear of the venue, yet still be able to see and hear the stage. Getting jacked $10 to park – simply because there’s nowhere else to park in the middle of nowhere – is the main venue flaw that could still use correcting (as well as the annoying bright lamp post near the entrance that remains on throughout the show).
This is semi-hometurf for Bingham and his band, who came up through the Austin music scene. So the crowd is casually getting its drink on when the band hits the stage with “Dollar a Day”, a rouser from the group’s first album, switching the party is on. The anthemic “Depression” from the band’s latest album leads to a sweet jam, with lead guitarist Corby Schaub ripping off a hot solo on the zeitgeist ode to love triumphing over economic hardship. The bluesy rocking continues on “The Other Side” and “Dylan’s Hard Rain”, a bouncy up-tempo gem from the band’s second album that gets the crowd grooving.
The band’s sound may not have evolved much over the course of their three albums, but the consistently high level of the songs has given Bingham the ability to play songs from any of them without concern for expectations. The repertoire has an unusually large number of tunes that have the feel of classics, despite the fact that the band has only been in the national consciousness for a few years. Bingham’s soulful blend of blues, rock and country has made him arguably one of the greatest crossover artists of modern times, able to appeal to a wide-ranging audience in a way few others can.
“Hard Times” slows things back down a bit with a bluesy shuffle and some dirty slide guitar. But it’s another fan favorite, as a pack of country looking guys singing out the lyrics in cathartically joyous fashion. With several tunes devoted to the topic of overcoming personal struggles, it’s obvious that Bingham has had his share. This is part of what gives him such a universal appeal, for Bingham is no manufactured pop star. He’s paid his dues and honed his craft, letting that bluesy authenticity shine through in his music.
The band keeps picking up steam with the hard rocking “Day is Done”. Bassist Elijah Ford and drummer Matthew Smith lay down a big groove, while Bingham and Schaub riff out on top. Bingham throws a curveball with a new up-tempo arrangement of “Junky Star”, the title track from the band’s 2010 release. The original version is a somber tune that would have felt out of place here, so it’s somewhat genius to transform it to fit into tonight’s high energy show.
Bingham keeps throwing out all kinds of different bluesy flavors from his deck of aces. “Boracho Station” finds him singing in Spanish on a Mexican flavored tune, while “Strange Feelin’ in the Air” dips into an ambient blues territory about small towns. The band kicks the song up a notch though with a jam that builds in intensity, until bassist Ford is dropping low-end bombs that ignite the evening.
A major highlight occurs with the politically charged “Change of Direction”, a song that Bingham played for labor protestors in Madison, Wisconsin this past winter (along with a stellar rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”). The catchy tune comes straight out of the Dylan tradition, but taps into modern times. The band tears it up with Bingham and Schaub again displaying some great guitar interplay. Another gem closes the set with “South Side of Heaven”, the opening track from the group’s debut LP. It’s a country-tinged tune that builds into a bluesy rocker, encompassing all of Bingham’s influences. It also seems to tell the tale of Bingham’s long climb from his days as a West Texas desperado into one of the nation’s finest modern troubadors. There’s another great bluesy jam, which further amplifies the raucous crowd.
A big four song encore gives the show an epic conclusion. “Bluebird” finds the band dipping into their most psychedelic, with Bingham and the Dead Horses displaying some of their hippie jam-rock side. It’s a gorgeous shimmering song with a big jam that could have easily ended the show on a very high note. But there’s still plenty more to come. The band brings out opener Liam Gerner to jam on guitar for a crowd-pleasing Townes Van Zandt rocker. “Sunshine” then follows with its markedly bluesy and ever-timely message, “Tell the darkness that you ain’t no slave”.
Bingham closes it out with his made for Texas anthem, “Bread and Water”, another perennial high-energy crowd pleaser where the slide guitar sparkles with bluesy goodness. When Bingham sings “Hitchhiked on down to Tijuana, hit the rodeo in San Antone,” the crowd responds with a huge cheer. The band cranks it up for one last big jam, leaving everyone fully sated by the end.