Chip Robinson / Kenny Roby – Six String Cafe (Cary, NC)
During the heady days of 1996, it seemed as if you could see the Backsliders or Six String Drag once a week somewhere in the North Carolina Triangle area. Each offered their own flavor of “alternative country,” whether or not they liked the term. And each is now at least two years gone.
Front and center for the Backsliders was Chip Robinson, his onstage presence once imaginatively described as a “semi-civilized Rumplestiltskin.” Leading Six String Drag was Kenny Roby, who had traded in his glam-punk dress for a pork pie hat and a sound that channeled the Louvins and The Band via Elvis Costello. Robinson and Roby are once again playing around town with bands, the rosters of which frequently overlap, but this night found the pair in stripped-down mode.
Roby’s vocals have a hard-to-pin-down quality that serves to infuse song after song with quiet emotion. And emotions were running deep on this night, as it was his first show since the passing of his father. His choice of songs fit the mood and the occasion. The covers included Willie Nelson’s “One Day At A Time”, the Stanley Brothers’ “Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet”, and, in honor of his train-song-loving dad, A.P. Carter’s “Wabash Cannonball” and Tom T. Hall’s “I Miss A Lot Of Trains”. Roby also debuted three compositions so new that they still need titles: a striking bit of homegrown gospel enhanced by the steel guitar of ex-6SD mate Scott Miller, one of several guest players; a Springsteenish tune about growing up in Clemson, South Carolina, with Rob Farris filling the Roy Bittan keyboard role; and Roby’s own train song, written on the way back to Raleigh from Clemson after his father’s funeral. An a cappella version of the Louvin Brothers’ “Jesus Is Whispering Now” brought the set to a moving end.
Robinson identified his set as another stop on the “unrehearsed and unprepared tour,” and like Roby, he didn’t shy away from the works of others. He opened with John Prine’s “Mexican Home” and later visited the vast catalogs of John Hiatt (for “Train To Birmingham”, which remains unrecorded by the author) and Bob Dylan (“Girl From The North Country”).
After a string of his own songs — “Hey Sheriff” (disturbing at any speed and featuring Miller on appropriately threatening steel guitar), the roots-soulful “Two Candles”, and the ideal-world hits “Angelita” and “Throwin’ Rocks At The Moon” — Robinson served up another pleasant surprise in the form of kindred spirit Malcolm Holcombe’s “Who Carried You”. And by request, he roared the night to a close with a full-throttle version of Wayne Kramer’s “Something’s Broken In The Promised Land”, leaving us with a scream instead of a whisper and demonstrating how his beat-to-shit acoustic guitar got that way.
But my favorite moment occurred earlier when Roby, joined by hot pickers Miller and Scott McCall (in what Roby deemed “a Scott-off”), prepared to launch into the aforementioned “Wabash Cannonball”. Looking skyward, he mused, “Someone upstairs will be correcting me on the lyrics.” Not a soul seemed to mind.