A Tribute To Hank Williams – The Cabooze (Minneapolis, MN)
Hank Williams once sang, “Let me sing my song ’til they call me home to a land beyond the blue.” The happy rovin’ cowboy died on New Year’s Day 1953, but every year the week before that dubious anniversary since 1989, a chorus of Hanks have kept his song alive in Minneapolis. And this year, scheduled smack-dab in the middle of a holiday week club docket that included back-to-back gigs by Son Volt, Vic Chesnutt and Golden Smog, the Hank Tribute once again provided the purest dose of country music — alternative or otherwise — around.
For good reason, Minneapolis music historians wax nostalgically about the first magical Hank Tribute, which featured such luminaries as Dave Pirner, Mark Olson and Gary Louris. Eight years later, some of the all-star lustre has dissipated, leaving only die-hard Hank fans in the house and some of the Twin Cities’ best players on stage. This year, the band included head Hank Slim Dunlap (Replacements), pedal steel guitarist Randy Broughten (Gear Daddies, Trailer Trash), fiddle player Mike “Raz” Russell (Joe Henry, Jayhawks), drummer Noah Levy (Honeydogs, Golden Smog), bassist Nick Ciola (Gear Daddies, Martin Zellar Band) and guitarist Dan Neale (Trailer Trash, Martin Zellar Band).
With an ingrained familiarity, the six-piece ensemble handled the backing chores expertly, complete with the opening strains of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” serving as an old-timey segue between vocalists. Slim’s between-song chatter (which has gotten eerily closer to Hank’s twang with each year) and affable stage demeanor anchored the proceedings as a host of singers got up to play Hank, including Zellar, Curtiss A, Nate Dungan (Trailer Trash), Frank Berry (the Pistons) and Dave Biljan (Crackpot Records). Also taking a turn up front was Janie Miller, who first caused a stir with her Patsy Cline Tribute and who brought down the house — and the boys’ club — back in 1989 with her surprise rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart”.
Beyond the music, the most beautiful thing about the Hank Tribute is the brotherly love that positively oozes from the stage. For the past several years, most of the players have participated in a regular Wednesday and Saturday night poker game. They have spent time at each others’ homes, bluffed each other, beat each other, raised each others’ stakes, won, and lost together. As a result, their feel for each other is intuitive. Genuine. And when they come together once a year onstage, they share a chemistry that even most “real” bands don’t possess.
Indeed, every year at this time there is plenty of empty talk about family, but rarely have I felt so at home as when I’ve stood in front of that big stage, sipping a Rolling Rock and watching this group of pals play music they love. The irony of it all, I suppose, is that many of the players are sober, while Hank died with a bottle in his hand. It is an unspoken thing, but clearly, these latter-day Hanks have learned as much from his death as they did from his music. So they gather annually to keep alive a legacy that left us all too soon. This year, the three-hour show included faithful readings of “Mind Your Own Business”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Lost Highway”, “Jambalaya”, “Cold, Cold Heart”, “Lovesick Blues”, “Wedding Bells”, and, of course, the show’s annual climax, “I Saw The Light”.
As the night wound down, Dunlap called all the Hanks up onstage. It was a decidedly unsexy photo-op, one that would never make Rolling Stone’s Random Notes section. But as one veteran Hank Tribute observer put it while taking in the sight of the dozen or so singers and six musicians: You could write a book about all the stories up there. It was a chorus of real-life divorcees, drunks, ex-drunks, fathers, husbands, bachelors, nut cases, card sharks, winners and losers, all singing, together:
“I wandered so aimless/Life filled with sin/I wouldn’t let my dear savior in/Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night/And praise the lord, I saw the light/No more darkness/No more light/Now I’m so happy/No sorrow in sight/Praise the lord, I saw the light”.
Chills? You betcha. You can have “Joy To The World” and “Silent Night” and all that other hooey. “I Saw The Light” is my Christmas carol of choice, and I sang it like I meant it that night, along with all the other gamblers — on and off the stage.