Bad Livers – Bluebird Theater (Denver, CO)
The morning after this show, I got an e-mail from Bad Livers bass player and spokesperson Mark Rubin, apologizing for an “off night” in what he felt was a “road-weary” performance. After expressing my regret at having chosen the Livers over the Gore-Kemp debate that evening, my reply went on to mention that, as a live Livers neophyte, I could only imagine what an “on” night would be.
After an entertaining, if somewhat contrived, opening set by Denver’s neo-rockabilly Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, the Livers immediately lived up to their thrashgrass, speedmetal acoustic, whatever-else-you-wanna-call-it reputation with a way-above-the-legal-limit instrumental, “If You’re Gonna Get Up On My Ass, Honey, You’d Best Pass Me”. The normally voluble Rubin eschewed any greetings and took the trio directly into Reno and Smiley’s “I Know You’re Married”, from their 1992 debut Delusions of Banjer, and “I’m Going Down to the Station”, from 1994’s Horses in the Mines. (The Livers’ next disc, Hogs on the Highway, is due out in February on Sugar Hill.)
The band continued with a funky “Crow Black Chicken”, which featured a nice slap-bass solo by Rubin, some tasteful banjo accents from Danny Barnes, and an extended free-form segment that had audience members registering mildly surprised, deja-vu-like glances at one another when the tune eventually returned to its recognizable theme and conclusion.
Another dip into the Reno and Smiley songbook for “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” was followed by “Gimme the News, Not the Weather” from the upcoming CD and an almost-demented reading of “Ghost Train”, highlighted by the breakneck fiddling of Mark White III. Rubin then introduced “I’m Going Back to Mom and Dad” as “an ode to those in the audience who smoke dope, drink booze, and chase women” — and, after pausing for the requisite yips and hoots, added, “on Mom and Dad’s money.” The song effectively demonstrated the extent to which banjoist Barnes has breathed new life into the clawhammer picking/strumming technique.
After a brief monologue concerning hotel housekeeping ladies and the relative merits of online computer services — punctuated by Rubin’s dead-on rendition of AOL’s disembodied “you’ve got mail” voice — the Livers kicked it up a notch with “Horses in the Mines” and “Time and Time Again”, a combination that caused the formation of a spontaneous dufus-grass mosh amongst some apparently dateless and inebriated males who had been biding their time on the dance floor. The pace was kept with “Git Them Pretty Girls”, “Better Times” and a new Rubin tune, the engaging “Old Folks Shuffle”.
Several songs later, the band conducted an “art vs. commerce” experiment, during which White played an extended accordion solo while Rubin pulled a chair to the front of the stage and hawked various articles of Liverware. After closing up shop, Rubin hauled out his tuba and loped through “Turpentine Willie” and a tune from the new disc featuring an extended tuba solo that explored the high-note limits of the instrument — no mean feat in Denver’s mile-high, oxygen-deficient air.
The band performed both the last song (“Shit Creek”) and encore (“Uncle Lucius”) without an interruption, avoiding what Rubin termed the “rock ‘n’ roll bullshit” associated with waiting for the obligatory clap/stomp/hoot before trudging back onstage, mentioning how great it is to be in (insert your city here), and finally delivering the big E.
The Bad Livers have taken a somewhat twisted sonic step beyond the traditional bluegrass form to something by turns darker, brighter, moodier and goofier. If one could imagine bluegrass in a world without Jesus, this might be it.