Honky Tonk Heaven
You can call Austin-based ass-kicker Dale Watson a lot of things. Lazy isn’t one of them. I saw his bus early yesterday morning on my way into work, parked in a rare open slot in downtown Madison. The Lone Stars had pulled in earlier that morning from a gig in La Crosse, WI.
Watson’s normally shellacked pompadour was on the loose — running wild after a night of tossing and turning in the tour bus bunk. He stepped from the door and into the cool morning air to answer a fan’s knock: a respectful dude who held out a CD for him to sign.
Yup. Watson was on the clock. A couple hours later, he played a live radio show then headed across town to throw down a seven-song record store set. There was enough time to accommodate a TV crew before sound check.
Then he turned the High Noon Saloon into an Ameripolitan insane asylum. A place where there’s only an AM setting on the radio.
Hippies, hipsters, oldsters, youngsters, squares, rebels, bikers and businessmen filled the nearly sold-out hall. Watson — bare-chested under a tight black vest that would make Marty Stuart blush — was in high spirits. Nothing like a new record filled to the brim with instant classics, for an excuse to party.
Call Me Insane, on Red House Records, is a typical Watson product. Only one or two turds surrounded by the best, hardest-core country/Western/honky-tonk songs being made right now.
“Day at a Time” kicked off the almost two-hour set. Watson is the only guy in the band who doesn’t look like an accountant. The “Lone Stars” include pedal steel genius Don Pawlak. On up-tempo numbers like this one, Pawlak’s and Watson’s instrumental interplay — steel and tele, then tele and steel — gave the audience little time to rest. No one complained.
Watson’s baritone gets stronger with age. “Call Me Insane,” the contemplative ballad and album title track, was deeply interpreted. The crowd took breaths between bars, with the performer. Pawlak’s whining pedal steel played the part of the cheater.
String bassist Chris Crepps was aerobic on his instrument all night. But his vocal harmonies with Watson close the deal on songs like, “Heaven’s Gonna Have a Honky Tonk.” Watson’s the kind of performer who stands on the 10th floor ledge and dares his audience to jump with him. No net. No set list. Any request is fair game. And there were a ton of them last night. “Truckin’ Man” was one. As Jerry Reed as it gets, all bee-stings and geese farts on the electric guitar. “Everybody’s Somebody” was another which is Watson’s Waylon and Willie salute to Luckenbach, TX.
One of Watson’s secret songwriting weapons is his fondness for modulation. “Hey Driver” and “I Lie When I Drink” lathered up the crowd from the first measure but when the song modulated, it was like throwing the house into fifth gear.
I want to believe that heaven has a honky-tonk. But I’m not going to worry about it much. Dale Watson’s got it covered down here for now.