Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun – Sweetwater Saloon (Mill Valley, CA)
Mill Valley is a small village in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is where a lot of the Bay Area rock ‘n’ roll robber barons moved to in the ’70s and ’80s, once the royalty checks started rolling in. The Sweetwater, a small bar off of the town square, serves as the local watering hole for the likes of Jorma Kaukonen, John Lee Hooker, the Sons of Champlin and Huey Lewis.
When Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen were hot, several of them ended up in Mill Valley, and Cody veteran Bill Kirchen acknowledged the homecoming atmosphere when he kicked off a two-night weekend stand here. Kirchen and his band, Too Much Fun, were joined by Marin local Audie de Lone, the keyboard player from Bill’s second band, the Moonlighters, and several other old friends for two brisk sets of Telecaster twanging, truck-driving, honky-tonk that was well received by the 300 folks packed into the tiny bar.
If you’ve heard Kirchen’s recent discs Black Top, Have Love Will Travel and Hot Rod Lincoln Live, you’ve heard most of the set list that night, with the exception of vocal turns by bassist Johnny Castle (“Cold Country Blues”), de Lone (several tunes, including “Swinging Teardrops”) and drummer Jack O’Dell.
Kirchen also called to the stand his old songwriting buddy, Kevin “Blackie” Farrell, for a short set, featuring the old Cody hit “Mama Always Hated Diesels”; Huey Lewis’ keyboard player, Shawn Hopper; and an old Berkeley pal, Alice Stewart, for her signature tune, Hank Snow’s “The Golden Rocket”.
The hands-down show-stopper of the evening, however, was Kirchen’s rendition of “Hot Rod Lincoln”, the Johnny Bond classic. In the old days, this was (Commander) George Frayne’s centerpiece, with Kirchen supplying the sound effects on his Telecaster: The lines that looked like dots, the fenders clicking the guardrail post, the police siren, and the Caddy driver’s forlorn horn salute as he concedes and pulls over “to let us by.” Now, when he gets to this part, Kirchen starts piling it on, first with different car horns (a taxi, a VW bus, a White Freightliner), and then he really goes nuts, laying down 32 of the most basic licks in country and rock ‘n’ roll guitar history: from Johnny Cash to Duane Eddy to Johnny Rivers to the “King Family” (Freddie, Albert, B.B., Ben. E., Carol, Billie Jean, Don, and THE), to ‘a whole bunch of English guys,’ he nails every riff, in two notes (Merle Haggard) or eight bars (Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughan), and finishes with a behind-the-neck salute to Jimi’s “Foxy Lady”, before finding his way back to the last verse of “Hot Rod” and the quadruple-time reprise of that song’s basic phrase.
“Hot Rod Lincoln” left the room reeling, and Kirchen looked like he was enjoying himself, playing with his friends in a friendly old room. As they finished the set and came back for a short encore, the Sweetwater crowd was quite happy to welcome him back to this home away from home.