Honky Tonk-a-rama – Local 506 (Chapel Hill, NC)
The first Honky Tonk-A-Rama, held in February 1996, was a storm-ravaged affair, with the bad weather outside leading to some interesting lineups — John Howie and Ryan Adams sat in on drums and bass, respectively, for Jolene’s snowbound rhythm section — and a real sense of community inside. Community was also an appropriate keyword for the first night of this year’s festival, with all six of the bands hailing from North Carolina’s Triangle area.
The first half found newcomer Hobart Willis and eleventh-hour subs the Kickbacks (a swing-leaning bunch that features area fiddler-for-hire Jon Kemppainen) sandwiching Greg Hawks and his band the Tremblers, the best Triangle outfit that has yet to release anything. Whether he’s offering his own “Fool’s Paradise” (complete with a chiming “When You Walk In The Room” riff buoying the chorus), turning Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest” into a gritty country-rock song, or covering Hag’s “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down”, Hawks and his room-filling baritone always impress, and the addition of ex-Backslider Danny Kurtz on bass has solidified the Tremblers’ lineup.
Next, Kenny Roby and the self-explanatorily named New Electric Combo offered a soulful and energetic 10-song set drawn mostly from Roby’s recent roots-pop gem Mercury’s Blues. Roby has always sort of cold-shouldered Elvis Costello comparisons, but a new, yet-untitled tune that’s become his set-closer suggests he’s learned to embrace his inner McManus; it’s all “Radio Radio” bounce and Steve Nieve-ish carnival keyboards. With its “Love lives here where Peace meets Person Street” chorus, I assumed it was a warm and fuzzy love song to his family. However, it turns out that a Krispy Kreme store resides at the corner of Peace and Person in Raleigh, so apparently it’s a warm and frosted love song to a donut. Regardless, it rocks like a motherkruller.
The night ended on a two-part honky-tonk note courtesy of the Carbines and Two Dollar Pistols. Among the highlights were a beaming Tift Merritt buckling many knees with the offer of Saturday night companionship in the Carbines’ revved-up version of “Jukejoint Girl”, and the Pistols unveiling a swell roots-rocking cover of the Replacements’ “When It Began”.
This year, a small stage inside the adjoining sports bar offered between-set serenading by various frontpeople from the participating bands. In perhaps the performance of the ‘Rama, Hawks’ towering cover of “She Thinks I Still Care” managed to tear most of the hockey fans away from an overtime game.
Night two had three out-of-towners splitting the bill with three locals. Athens, Georgia, pure-country crew the Star Room Boys led off, followed by the Beat Farmers-ish Blue Balls Deluxe from Arlington, Virginia. Bloodshot Records band Trailer Bride then recaptured the stage for the state of North Carolina before giving way to the Chicken Wire Gang, Chapel Hill’s very own Holy Modal Rounders. The longstanding Gang pulled off the unusual double of covering songs from two Rick Millers: a barn-band take on Rick Rock’s (born Rick Miller, now known as Parthenon Huxley) new wave nugget “Buddha Buddha” followed by “She Bought A Dog”, penned by Southern Culture on the Skids’ Rick Miller.
Up next was another Athens band, Drive-By Truckers. Folks have learned to get past the Truckers’ gangsta-redneck name and jokey album titles and covers, and focus on their often powerful songs. For instance, at first glance, their “Steve McQueen” may seem like merely an excuse to do some carnal-knowledge name-dropping of Ali McGraw and Faye Dunaway, but Patterson Hood’s personalized coda gives the song a poignant twist. Hood and company also chose to weave a bit of “Gimme Three Steps” into the closing jam, perhaps foreshadowing their next release: a rock opera called Betamax Guillotine that promises to examine the musical and cultural impact of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
More than a few people filed out after the Drive-By Truckers’ set, a migration that seemed to surprise the headlining Backsliders as much as it did me. It took a couple songs for Chip Robinson (with an electric guitar strapped on instead of the customary hopped-up acoustic) and company to settle in, but they soon rewarded those who hung on. With runs through Eric Ambel’s “Forever Came Today”, Alejandro Escovedo’s “Paradise”, the Stones’ (filtered through Alejandro) “Sway,” and Gram Parsons’ “Still Feelin’ Blue”, the Backsliders played almost as many covers as originals. We diehards were sent home with Donny Ray Ford’s “Cowboy Boots”, a longtime ‘Sliders staple, into which a surf medley and a good 30 seconds of “Whole Lotta Love” were inserted. It was a whole lotta fun.