BR549 – Johnny D.’s (Somerville, MA)
The dilemma facing BR549 is a credibility problem: With two original members gone, can this be considered the same group? Taking the stage at Johnny D.’s with Chris Scruggs (yes, he’s related) replacing founding partner Gary Bennett on guitar and vocals, and Jeff Firebaugh taking the place of Smilin’ Jay McDowell on slap bass, BR549 certainly came across as a changed group — but one that goes beyond merely doing justice to the previous lineup.
The set started boldly with “Cherokee Boogie”, a song bound to provoke instant comparisons to the past. Chuck Mead’s voice seemed a bit thin at times, but it was just a minor glitch in a house rocker that had Scruggs tossing off heavy rockabilly accents right out of the gate. Scruggs seems determined to carve out a niche for himself in the BR549 tradition, remaining true to the originals but unafraid to add a few flourishes where they count. On “Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal” Scruggs turned it up a notch, using Link Wray-style reverb to complement Don Herron’s brief but brilliant bursts of steel. The result surpassed the original recording, and judging by Mead’s yodel and the dancing crowd, a unique chemistry is beginning to emerge. “Out Of Habit” and “18 Wheels And A Crowbar” also received the rave-up treatment.
The band’s comfort became evident with the covers. On “Cocaine Blues”, Scruggs, all the while sporting a stone face somewhere between Bill Monroe and Buster Keaton, traded off with the virtuoso Herron, answering Herron’s breaks whether on guitar, fiddle, or steel. Mead gave “Lost Highway” a perfect bluesy whine, supported by Scruggs’ close harmony. A frantic take on “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” turned into a friendly battle between Scruggs and Herron’s steel. It was all one could hope for in a change of personnel: the same drive and passion with slight, and interesting, changes. Mead’s mimicry recovered from a valiant attempt at Willie’s “Hello Walls” for Bob Wills’ “My Window Faces South”, with Herron on guitar and fiddle for some flawless western swing.
As for stage presence, always a major factor in BR549’s show, Mead was affable as ever when handling introductory spiels, while Scruggs was an effective counterpart with his aw-shucks shyness. If BR5-49 is dead, then long live BR549.