Reviews

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses: 19 May 2011 - Helotes, TX

Bingham's soulful blend of blues, rock and country has made him one of the greatest crossover artists of modern times, able to appeal to a wide-ranging audience in a way few others can.

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses

City: Helotes, TX
Venue: Josabi's
Date: 2011-05-19

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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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