[8 December 2008]
A rainy night in Houston didn’t keep a sizable crowd from coming out to see a bunch of punk frontmen playing acoustic guitars. Walter’s on Washington is basically a dive bar in a questionable neighborhood that is unbearably hot about eight months out of the year. Even a cool, rainy night and a mostly stationary crowd still got the place heated up, with the typical Houston humidity pouring in every time the front door opened. Yet the venue felt like the right spot for this particular show. The Revival Tour matched up Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music), Ben Nichols (Lucero), Tim Barry (Avail), Tom Gabel (Against Me!), and Kevin Seconds (7 Seconds) for an evening of solo sets as well as some collaboration. The evening started, to my surprise, with the most venerable of the quintet, Kevin Seconds. 7 Seconds has been around since the early ‘80s, so it was a bit odd to see him as the opening act on this bill. I later learned that The Revival Tour was the brainchild of Ragan, Nichols, and Barry, and so that trio filled the final three slots of the night. Seconds played a short set of melodic pop that was dominated by new material. He was in good humor throughout the set, discussing what his songs were about and admitting that most of the crowd probably wasn’t familiar with him anyway. His best anecdote involved the glasses he was wearing. He said that he had always expected to lose his hearing over the years of playing punk rock music, but that it was very disheartening when he found out his eyes were starting to go as he got older.
After Seconds’ set, Ragan, Nichols, and Barry got up onstage and played a trio of songs (sorry folks, the only artist whose material I was even partially familiar with was Tom Gabel, so there won’t be many song titles in this review), switching off lead vocals and letting Ragan play a couple of harmonica solos. They were joined by three additional musicians—an upright bass player, a fiddler, and a pedal steel guitarist. Naturally this added a down-home, country/bluegrass feel to the songs and it was refreshing to hear guys who usually play at maximum volume performing acoustic material. Of course, the music may have been more country, but the voices were still throaty, grating punk howls that barely stayed in tune. But there was a certain charm to that as well.
When this brief set was over, the band gave way to Tom Gabel, who was promoting his new solo EP Heart Burns. Gabel stuck mostly to songs from this EP, but the enthusiastic crowd seemed to know those songs by heart already. And when he pulled out a couple of older Against Me! chestnuts, the singalong was loud and intense. He closed his set with the excellent “Anna is a Stool Pigeon”, a song about the true story of Eric McDavid and his questionable arrest and indictment on the word of Anna, an FBI informant who was paid $75,000 for her work.
Next up was Tim Barry. Barry played a set full of emotional, visceral songs and talked a lot about his life in the process. The accompanying players from earlier joined him on most of the songs, giving his set a fuller presence than Gabel’s. He opened with “Dog Bumped”, a great story song about his sister and the man (the wrong man, of course) she married. Later on, “Avoiding Catatonic Surrender” talked about a rough trip to New Jersey as well as his dislike of, well, just about everybody. Barry talked about the tough year he has had, losing two great friends as well as the struggles of his main band, Avail. But he also said The Revival Tour had been cathartic for him, and probably the most fun he had ever had on a tour. Then he complained about having to go home after the tour and go back to his day job, master carpenter for the Richmond Ballet and getting set up for The Nutcracker. Barry’s raw songs and rough-yet-melodic voice may have been the best-suited to the acoustic setup of the evening.
By the time Barry finished his set, Walter’s on Washington had begun to clear out a bit. It was a Monday night, after all, and at least a chunk of the crowd had been there to see the biggest name on the bill, Tom Gabel. With Gabel done before 10pm, it seemed that some of the audience decided to get home early for school or work the next day. Those who remained seemed to stay primarily for Chuck Ragan, easily the second-biggest name on the bill and the night’s final solo act. But first, Lucero’s Ben Nichols was up. Nichols, sporting a scraggly beard, worn trucker’s hat, and a dirty-looking winter vest/jacket, was hanging around watching Kevin Seconds early in the night. At the time, I thought to myself “this person in front of me could just as easily be a fan or a hobo who wandered in off of the street.” It wasn’t until another person walked by and congratulated Nichols on his set the previous night in Austin that I realized he was actually a performer.
Nichols may have had the gravelliest voice on a night full of gravelly voices. His songs were pretty good, but it was actually painful to listen to him at times. Fortunately the backing players helped him out and kept his set upbeat and entertaining. His enthusiasm was palpable, and his conversations with the crowd were interesting. A small group of guys in front kept yelling loudly for Nichols to play “Kiss the Bottle”, but he was reluctant to do it. It sounded like he had played it in Austin and, in fact, played it a lot, and that he was a little sick of it. But he talked about his dueling impulses—should he give in to popular demand and play the song, or should he continue on as planned and do the songs he wanted to do? He went back and forth with these guys and the rest of the crowd concerning the song throughout his set, but eventually decided not to play it due to his relatively short time on stage. He guaranteed that he would play it next time he came through with Lucero, though. Probably small comfort to that segment of the crowd, but I was happy that he stuck to his guns.
Chuck Ragan was last, and the remaining crowd gave him a huge cheer. Hot Water Music has been around for a long time and built up at least a sizable following, certainly more than Lucero or Avail, and it showed in the audience reaction. Ragan’s voice split the difference between the two previous performers—he was not as melodic as Tim Barry, but not quite as gravelly as Ben Nichols. The first part of his set was energetic, but it was getting late, and it was a Monday night. I would’ve liked to have stayed to see the inevitable big finish with all of the performers back onstage together, but Monday nights are especially tough when you have to work the next day. So yeah, perhaps in true punk fashion, I bailed before the bitter end. Still, The Revival Tour was a unique and rewarding experience, and it was cool to see punk guys in front of an old-time string band instead of a stage filled with amps.