[4 February 2008]
Since the WLS National Barn Dance first aired in 1924, Chicago has maintained a flourishing country music scene, serving as home base for folks like Robbie Fulks and Bloodshot Records. The Gin Palace Jesters are Chicago’s best kept secret. On Roadhouse Riot and Other Songs With Words they serve up barroom raucousness in an outstanding follow up to 2004’s fantastic Honkytonk Fools (Rhythm Bomb Records). No sophomore slump here. If anything, the Jesters have only improved in the past three years.
The Gin Palace Jesters are well-versed in country music history, drawing from legends like Webb Pierce and Buck Owens, even to the point of having a traditional “girl singer”, Fiddlin’ Katie Schadegg, who ain’t just a pretty face, but also an amazing instrumentalist (a classically trained violinist) and a game duet partner for frontman and lead guitarist Pennsylvania Dave Sisson. In an era when even the most old-school country bands look like they go straight from the stage to sleeping on sidewalk grates, the Jesters wear matching outfits. It’s a throwback to the days of early country and rockabilly, when pomaded fellas in pearl snap shirts were the norm.
The album kicks off with “Losing Her Memory,” a fantastic drinking song which features Sisson imploring a bartender to “tell the band to turn their guitars way up loud / and pull the cap off one more bottle of beer” in an attempt to forget the one who’s done him wrong. Stereotypical subjects for a country song, certainly, but it hasn’t been done this well since country’s golden age of the 1940s and 1950s. “You Cry Alone,” written by rhythm guitarist Ken Mottet, is an upbeat kissoff to a straying lover. And upbeat kissoffs don’t get better than this: “Welcome to misery / prepare for the heartache…”, the lyrics go, “...When it hurts right down to the bone / you’ll cry alone.”
“Ol’ Webb’s Bullhorn Pontiac” pays tribute to the man with Nashville’s first pimped-out ride. I’d love this song simply because Webb Pierce is one of my country heroes, but the fact that Sisson is possibly the first country songwriter to use the word “ostentatious” in a song (take that, country singers who glorify redneck stereotypes—coughcoughTobyKeithcough) cements my devotion to the album’s best track.
The one snoozer here is “Moonbeam”. On any other record by any other band it would be a great song, but here it lacks the inherent sly wit of Sisson’s other, stronger works. Being sandwiched between two upbeat songs, “You Cry Alone” and “Ol’ Webb’s Bullhorn Pontiac”, only serves to reinforce its comparative boringness. A couple of well-chosen covers round out the song selection. Dave Sisson and bass player Casey Stockdon duet on the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Missing Me” while the Buck Owens’ song “Second Fiddle” sees Schadegg rocking the fiddle as a counterpoint to Sisson’s smooth baritone. The final song of the record, “Last One’s Left Waltz”, sees Sisson and Schadegg attempting to rhyme “alcohol” with “waltz”. That’s normally an unforgiveable sin (seriously, on what planet do those two words even come close to rhyming?), but the song is so catchy that this lapse in lyrical judgment can easily be overlooked. This is the best drinking duet since Loretta Lynn and Jack White’s “Portland, Oregon”.
Although technically released in the last week of 2007, Roadhouse Riot is going to be one of the best country records of the new year. It is a must-have for anyone who loves good old American music. Neotraditionalist darlings BR549 better watch their backs, because the Gin Palace Jesters are on the rise. Now if only they’d tour outside of Illinois…