Bruce Henderson Charity Ball – Bowery Ballroom (New York, NY)
“There’s a hole in the cold, cold ground/One day they’ll put me down/I hope that hole is waiting patiently.”
These lines from Bruce Henderson’s “There’s A Hole” have probably held a special resonance these last few months. Henderson, whose 1997 album The Wheels Roll received its fair share of acclaim, was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer and has since undergone several operations and chemotherapy treatments. Though the prognosis is good and Henderson seems confident he will beat the disease, there’s still a mountain of medical bills.
Hence, the Bruce Henderson Charity Ball, an event organized by a group of Henderson’s friends to help cover those expenses. More than a dozen acts assembled to raise money for Henderson’s cancer care, and though many showed up to help Henderson because they respect him as a musician, many more came because they love him as a friend.
Some of Henderson’s best friends, his former bandmates from the High Plains Drifters, served as house band for the evening. The group, led by the guitar attack of Andy York (who also played with Henderson in the band Hearts And Minds) and former Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith, also opened the show with a pounding, foot-to-the-floor rendition of “I Can Drive”, which started the night with a bang. Then they settled into their supporting role, backing Henderson on the wistful “City Folk” and the aforementioned “There’s A Hole” before the guest of honor gave way to those who had come to help.
The three-and-a-half-hour show, especially the first half, was full of ups and downs. After low-key efforts from Freedy Johnston and Mary Lee’s Corvette, the concert hit its first peak with the inspired performance of Willie Nile, who plowed his way through Henderson’s “White Lines/Blacktop” before delivering a potent rendition of his own “You’ve Gotta Be A Buddha In A Place Like This”. Nile’s set upped the energy level for the evening, which proceeded to dip a bit after an uneventful set from Michael Shelley. But 5 Chinese Brothers followed with a solid one-two punch of Henderson’s “Swimming Through The Ashes” and their own “These Dreams”, and Amy Rigby’s rollicking “20 Questions” got the crowd moving again.
Predictably, as the show moved on, it started to drag a bit. Following a dreary set from Taylor Barton, a mid-concert instrumental take on “Stop In The Name Of Love” with G.E. Smith on lead proved two things: 1) Motown will always whip a crowd into at least a mild frenzy, and 2) Smith is a summa cum laude graduate of the Goofy Guitar Solo Face School. Jules Shear, Barbara Brousal and the Hangdogs all gave solid performances but did little to prevent some audience members from checking their watches.
Ex-Del Fuego Dan Zanes gave the show a needed jolt, leading a string band that gathered around the mike Opry-style to deliver a beautiful rendition of “Big Moon”, followed by the Carter Family’s “Keep On The Sunny Side”. Though the performance was understated, it was engaging enough to silence the incessantly murmuring crowd, which in New York City is akin to killing a lion with your bare hands.
Next up was Christine Ohlman and her band Rebel Montez, followed by some blue-eyed soul from Curtis Stigers and a rendition of Henderson’s “Texas Or New Mexico” by Randy Sharp. Marshall Crenshaw then offered an underwhelming three-song set, highlighted by his cover of Henderson’s “Drinkin’, Cheatin’, Lyin'”. Crenshaw’s languid performance left the crowd wanting something more.
Then, all of the sudden, at a perfectly nice little roots-rock concert, Spinal Tap broke out. Former Mott The Hoople frontman Ian Hunter hit the stage, eyes covered by brown-tinted sunglasses and curly blond hair touching his neck. His mission, expertly carried out, was simple: Kick the crowd’s ass and leave. So he quickly ripped into “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”, followed by the obligatory “All The Young Dudes”, and then left the stage. No mention of Henderson, no cover of one of his songs. David St. Hubbins and the boys would have been proud.
Henderson came back onstage, joking, “I guess there’s two pieces of bad news in life. One is that you have cancer and the other is that you have to follow Ian Hunter after he’s sung ‘All The Young Dudes’.” But Henderson proved up to the task, singing “The Wheels Roll” before actor Nick Searcy, the evening’s emcee, joined him and the High Plains Drifters for a spirited version of “Which Way The Wind Blows” off the now-out-of-print album from Hearts and Minds.
With the adulation of fans and friends, more than $12,000 raised for his expenses, and a new album due out in late March, Henderson left the stage smiling, leaving no doubt: That hole best be waiting patiently.