Ryan Bingham Dazzles with Troubadour Charm at the Sweetwater

Photo courtesy of the artist

Solo acoustic "Songs & Stories" format proves a winning formula for Ryan Bingham, the Texas-raised singer/songwriter with California charisma.

Editor's note: Ryan Bingham has been one of our favorite artists here at PopMatters for the past decade, from discovering him at a 2009 in-store performance at Austin's Waterloo Records to a 4th of July blowout in 2010 at the Whitewater Amphitheater in South Texas, to a revealing November 2015 interview that cemented his place in our hearts. So, of course, we jumped at the chance to catch Bingham on his current solo acoustic tour...

It's a rare seated show on this Saturday night at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California, the intimate Marin County nightclub owned by the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. Every seat is occupied at this sold out December 1st show as acclaimed troubadour Ryan Bingham hits the stage and takes his seat for a two-hour set being billed as "an intimate evening of songs and stories".

The crowd greets Bingham with a hero's welcome similar to how proprietor Weir is revered in these parts, a sign of how appreciated he's become and of how attentive the audience will be throughout the show. Bingham's natural charm shines from start to finish as he spins amusing tales from the early years of his musical career, as well as delivering sparkling renditions of the songs associated with such tales.

The upbeat "Dollar a Day" is an early highlight, with the bouncy blue-collar anthem generating big cheers when Bingham sings,"Man, it sure does cost well whole a lotta money, When you live in the land of the free, Well, I think I'll go and plant me a seed, Grow a marijuana money tree…" He makes a thematic combo out of it by following with "Hard Times", another bluesy tune with a cathartic vibe from his underrated 2007 debut album Mescalito.

Bingham continues to mine his first album with "Long Way to Georgia" and "Boracho Station", sandwiching a story about hitchhiking to meet his dad and winding up at a cold truck stop where he was advised to snuggle up to the hot tires of a truck that had just pulled in to stay warm. He describes his dad as "a character" with a family that "liked to party a lot… like from noon until noon the next day on a school night". It was during this time that a friend of his dad saw Bingham's new guitar and offered to teach him how to play. That began with lessons on the mariachi music that was popular in the household and which Bingham had become enamored with, eventually leading to tunes like "Boracho Station".

"Guitar became my new identity and saved me in a lot of ways," Bingham says, relating the concept of rock 'n' roll as a religion that has saved countless souls of music fans around the world. That leads into the new "Jingle and Go", an infectious tune about playing the roadhouse circuit. Bingham goes on to speak of moving up to Fort Worth, Texas and hanging out with military veterans there since they were the other musicians around town.

"Bingham, I got us a gig," he says of a friend getting them their first gig which turned out to be a wedding involving the notorious Banditos biker gang. This story pairs with a vibrant version of "Sunrise", where Bingham sings of taking his chances and sins and "Throwin' 'em down the hill, and I'll watch 'em come around again." The brand new "Wolves" from 2019's impending new album American Love Song is described as an anti-bullying song, with recent news stories of excessive bullying reminding Bingham of his own youth where he was often bullied for being the new kid in town since his family moved around a lot.

One of the evening's more amusing tales involves an adventure where Bingham thought he'd landed a job in Paris as part of a "Buffalo Bill" show, only to arrive and find that there was no job available. He was invited to crash with some of those who were working in the show however and soon discovered to his amazement that they had a demo tape of his that had been passed along by a Navajo friend. He eventually wound up in the show after all. Here he also spoke of writing the fan favorite "Sunshine" after being inspired by a sign that said "Free Leonard Peltier". The bluesy rocker provides a peak moment in the show here, with the audience stomping in time as Bingham lays down some ace slide work while imploring listeners to "Tell the darkness that you ain't no slave!"

Back in Texas, Bingham found himself flipping a coin with a friend to decide if they would journey to the East Coast or the West Coast in search of more opportunity. It's a fateful flip for the West Coast, where Bingham would soon meet a new girlfriend that became his wife. He speaks of telling her about needing to go back to Austin to get his stuff, with her deciding to join him for the trip. But then they get down there, and all he gets is his record collection while introducing his lady to a Texas past time of getting high and causing destructive mischief. "This is what people do out here, get stoned and blow shit up", Bingham explained wryly. This leads into a touchingly romantic tune about that time, followed by an endearing singalong on "Nobody Knows My Trouble" from 2015's Fear and Saturday Night.

"Thank you all so much for coming tonight, I feel very honored that y'all wanna listen to me", Bingham says toward the end of the show in his ever charmingly humble and self-effacing manner before delivering a crowd-pleasing rendition of his classic "Southside of Heaven".

The encore finds Bingham musing "America where have you gone" as a prelude to the raucous "Bread and Water", another Mescalito classic about Bingham's traveling adventures all around the Lone Star State. Here he throws in some extra lyrics toward the end, singing "I hope I didn't bring everyone down, thanks for sticking around." Bingham needn't have worried. His songs may reflect having spent his share of time in the proverbial school of hard knocks, but he's channeled those challenging times into cathartic music that has become a beacon of light for his fans as evidenced once again by tonight's adoring audience.

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