Angry Johnny & The Killbillies – Local 506 (Chapel Hill, NC)
Look up the noun “dive” in the dictionary, and there’s a picture of a place much nicer than Chapel Hill’s Local 506. The long and narrow club, with its exposed duct work and bizarre murals, looks like it was designed by Terry Gilliam on a PBR bender, and the benches around the perimeter have that unnaturally red padding found only in four-calendar diners and low-rent bars. In other words, it’s a perfect place to hear some loud, few-frills music.
Thus, it’s high praise to say that Angry Johnny (who’s actually quite amiable, especially for a guy who’s written not one but two songs about death by chainsaw) & the Killbillies fit right in during a recent visit from their hometown of Northampton, Mass., that found them playing first in what amounted to a four-band greasy-guitar/garagabilly showcase.
Starting out with their acoustic format — Johnny on acoustic guitar, Jim Joe Greedy on upright bass, Al Camino on mandolin and “Sleepy Animal” Kaisla (he of the celebrated large cranium) on drums — and gradually substituting electric guitars and bass, the band tore through 15 songs in 45 minutes, with the appropriately titled set-closer “Drag Racing the Devil” summing up the pace and mood of the preceding numbers.
Before diving head first into the blistering “202”, a cut from their debut album Hankenstein, Angry Johnny introduced the song as being “about some poor fuck getting blown away, which is pretty much what they’re all about.” Or, to paraphrase another Northeasterner, More Songs About Killings and Blood.
They’d do well to go easy on the blood-and-guts themes and Z-movie images, because this band is much too talented to be stuffed into the novelty-act bin. The evening’s second song, “Meet My Maker”, could create a new subgenre called hardcore acoustic gospel, while on “Life, Love, Death, and the Meter Man”, they transcended the shock-movie lyrics by coming on like the Pogues gone Yankee. Proving that they could be a fine pure country band if they had a mind to, the ‘Billies offered the downright pretty “Whiskey” and “Prison Walls”, the latter reminiscent of Jason and the Scorchers’ “Pray for Me Momma (I’m a Gypsy Now)”. Most impressive was “Bonita Chiquita”, (“a Mexican folk song we learned in jail in Tijuana”, deadpanned Angry Johnny), featuring some speedy picking by the apparently recently paroled fronting trio.
After 10 songs, Greedy traded his upright bass for an electric, and Camino made a similar swap. Surprisingly, the band became less powerful as they got more electric, kind of like the town bully tickling your ear with a fist after slapping you silly with an open hand. Still, an entertaining ride with a promising band; a couple fewer cadavers and a little more mandolin would have made it close to perfect.