For transparency, I'd like to say that Mr. McGregor are my part time bandmates, and they are great with their country-punk ballads on being juvenile delinquents, a Jonathan Richman-esque ode to Lucifer, and loud song about sleep. The show was in this place in the hipstery area of Bushwick-Williamsburg (Brooklyn, NY) called Good-bye Blue Monday, a huge room, cacophonously decorated with flea market bric-a-brac with a fay 20 year old bartender sporting 4-day stubble, serving cans of PBR from a ca. 1960 refrigerator. Generally there is little "curation" of music here. It's the kind of place where bands bid on slots from their website, and whoever signs up first plays. So you could have gay disco, some Puerto Rican Deathmetal, followed up with a lesbian singer-songwriter warbling about dogs. It's often just completely random. And so it was when I walked in to a Melvins/Celtic Frost metal band from Birmingham, their last day in NYC, clad in shorts and tats hammering away in what was nearly a Jack Black skit. Then McGregor did their set. Then...
With about 12 people sparsely populating this vast room of fleamarket crap (artfully arranged fleamarket crap), the Haggards unceremoniously plugged in, dressed in western garb, the drummer with a Pepto-Bismol pink satin cowboy shirt that looked like it was from the clearance shelf of a west village fetish shop, everyone in cowboy hats. Bryan, I gather from the below youtube entry, is the leader on sax. He does seem to be southern. He does apparently idolize Merle. But their sound was like a John Zorn send-up of Merle. All Merle. The drummer sounded as if he had learned how to play last week. The saxaphones minced timings so finely, it was the sonic equivelent of stuff that never quite leaves the garbage disposal. The silliness of it all was amazing. No one in the band could keep a straight face. Songs were often restarted, endings redone "one more time" at whim. I have to say, I've never seen Merle covers quite like this before.
I noticed this tall thin guy behind me in a red baseball cap. "Is that Robbie Fulks?" I said to myself. I've been listening to "Rock Bottom, population one" all week, so he was on the top of my feeble mind. Sure enough, after the fifth or sixth song, they asked their surprise guest to do a few tunes. Dennis, the McGreggor's bass player lent Fulks his cowboy hat, somehow being disappointed with Fulk's mere worn baseball cap he was wearing. If not the hat (which Fulks said was "filthy"), I think the Haggards fit him like an Italian shoe. Or was it a Lithuanian shoe. Either way, it was awkwardly cohesive. Two saxaphones free-jazzing it up, Robbie's deep-throated voice. This little guy, the second saxophone, I never once saw his face. He just stood there, all 4-foot-7 of him, under a huge cowboy hat, the bill just frantically bobbing in front of his face all night while he spit and sputtered through his sax.
The charm was also in the off-the-cuffness of it all. Fulks was literally reading lyrics off the pages of a Merle Haggard biography, struggling under bad stage lighting, the dust-jacket clumsily slipping off while he was juggling the book and microphone. When he returned to his seat, The Haggards ploughed into further jazz-inspired territory. In the last song, the seemingly bumbling drummer showed what he was made of, cutting loose into an infinitely complex and profound solo.
Wow. Very vaudeville. That's what I was thinking. The elevated J train rumbling overhead. The jazz, the Jewish edge to it all, or perhaps that was just from riding my bike through the adjacent Hassidic neighborhood to get to the show (my car was screwy yesterday). But the Rube Goldberg inspired room, the Zorn or even Kurt Weil inspired jazz. It made me think about the roots of country, where had it not been for some intrusive elements, mainly travelling vaudeville hillbilly shows, American rural music would most likely sound like celtic folk. (I'm a big fan of Nick Tosches' book, "Country" and am presently ploughing through Bill C. Malone's "Country Music USA.") And here it is, three or four generations later, yet another semitic invasion of the heartland. (Let it be known, I don't actually know the ethnic backgrounds of these fellers, but, you know, riffing off the Zorn thing.) I'm sorry to spoil the surprise, but if you ever see The Haggards on a bill somewhere, expect the unexpected. (Alright, gotta take the Mazda to the mechanic...)