Gerald Duncan / Chip Robinson / Kenny Roby – Cup a Joe (Raleigh, NC)
Everything in the heavens was in proper alignment on this warm night, resulting in a clear sky and a spectacular view of the Hale-Bopp comet. Offering even more evidence that the celestial machinery was firing on all cylinders, the frontmen of three of North Carolina’s best bands — Gerald Duncan of the recently resurrected Accelerators, Chip Robinson of the Backsliders, and Six String Drag’s Kenny Roby — were getting together to take turns playing some acoustic music to raise money for Danny Wrenn, a friend of Roby facing some huge bills after a bout with cancer.
With a crowd-hushing a cappella “Danny Boy” in honor of Mr. Wrenn, Duncan called the assembly to order. Just one trip through the line was enough to highlight the distinct performing styles and personalities on display. In the middle was Duncan, sitting posture-perfect yet seeming to reach down to his toes to wrench out notes. On the right flank was the animated Roby, possessor of the most expressive eyebrows since Groucho Marx, hopping in his chair like it was a skillet and his name was butter. Manning the right flank was Robinson, as serious as the IRS when he was playing but erupting with his loud and patented “thankyouverymuch!” at every song’s end.
The music itself was also diverse and three-headed, with familiar full-band numbers stripped down for the occasion along with brand new songs and well-chosen covers. We old-timers appreciated hearing Duncan tackle “Don’t Talk to Me”, the regional hit “Boy & Girl”, and the lovely “All of Blue” from the last Accelerators album, 1991’s Dream Train. Roby didn’t dip into Six String Drag’s self-titled debut, but he did play a couple tunes destined for the band’s upcoming debut on E-Squared, most notably “From Me to Clayton” and “Driven Man”. In their solo incarnations, both came off like great lost Elvis Costello songs, with an Armed Forces bounce in a King of America-na setting. For his part, Robinson proved that “Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon” works just as well as a back-porch singalong as it does as a big rock ‘n’ roll show centerpiece.
The most memorable of the new songs were Robinson’s “Abe Lincoln” — featuring both a powerful recurring metaphor (“You’re faded like a bloodstain on my sleeve”) and a Flamin’ Groovies name-drop — and a pair from Roby. Laughingly claiming that “Townes ripped off ‘Wabash Cannonball’ about four times, so I figure I can rip him off,” Roby introduced “The Sailor’s Request” as “being in the spirit of ‘Rex’s Blues’,” and this simple stunner lived up to that intro. And the ending of his dream-inspired “Trouble” provided the line of the night: “Trouble follows you into your sleep.”
Of course, no rock ‘n’ western swap meet would be complete without visitations from Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Roby was talked into a sloppy but entertaining “Act Naturally”, with Duncan’s earthy harmonies supporting Roby’s admittedly unrehearsed lead vocals. Haggard’s nod came courtesy of Robinson’s take on “Shopping for Dresses”, which brought to mind Steve Young’s rustic treatment on the Tulare Dust tribute album.
The highlight came when Duncan let loose with the holy words “Pulled in to Nazareth.” An unsuspecting Robinson forgot a line in the “Crazy Chester” stanza, but the fellas got everything else right on the only three-way collaboration of the set, with all three voices soaring and blending whenever the end of the chorus came around before engaging in a no-holds-barred vocal jam on the last verse.
The show started out as a benefit for one, but it ended up being a night on which everybody went home a little richer.