Junior Brown – House of Blues (Chicago, IL)
Looking over the audience at this typical Junior Brown concert, it was easy to spot the first-timers. They were the ones standing slack-jawed, eyes staring straight at the stage, a dribble of drool hanging from their chins. They’ll be okay at their second Junior show, but at their first, they were having difficulty processing the overwhelming stimuli.
First, there’s the sounds. Brown’s guit-steel, a combination electric guitar/steel guitar, is his own invention. It rests on a small shelf connected to a microphone stand, and when Brown attacks its dual necks, the resulting maelstrom is a fascinating aural hodgepodge. Sure, there was plenty honky-tonk twang at this show, but Brown also created noises reminiscent of a banjo, a grandfather clock, a locomotive, a motorcycle, a police siren, Jimi Hendrix, a cat in heat, screeching tires, and the transmission on a ’72 Nova Super Sport. Brown could probably make his guit-steel recite the Emancipation Proclamation in Esperanto. Yeah, he can play.
Secondly, there’s a bizarre visual element to Brown’s shows. Decked out in a sport coat, tie and cowboy hat, Brown leaned into the necks of the guit-steel like a revivalist preacher wrestling a couple of snakes. His facial contortions and jerking torso were a stark contrast to the automaton-like demeanor of his backing band. The rhythm section of Steve Layne (standup bass) and Cameron Dennis (a single snare drum, played with brushes) also wore jackets and ties, and could’ve passed for two insurance salesmen. Junior’s wife and acoustic guitarist, Tanya Rae Brown, decked out in tasteful business suit and coordinated earrings & necklace, steadily strummed chords all night long.
There were plenty of dazzling solos in this show, but Brown is at his best when the solos are in service of a solid song, such as the clever, melodic “Venom Wearin’ Denim” off last year’s Semi-Crazy. Brown’s strong baritone is a nice foil to his guit-steel pyrotechnics. “Highway Patrol”, “Holding Pattern” and “Gotta Get Up Every Morning” were particularly entertaining because they showcased Brown’s witty lyrics alongside his formidable musicianship. Less successful were “Freeborn Man” and “I Hung It Up”, which came across merely as excuses for more solos.
Throughout the show, Brown used various techniques to evoke hypnotic sounds from his guit-steel, such as adjusting the volume knob or dramatically cranking the tuning pegs to create a frightening rumble. He gracefully switched between the guit-steel’s upper and lower necks, occasionally sustaining a note on one neck while soloing on the other. Brown’s obsessive manipulation reached its apex during “Hillbilly Hula Gal”, when he hit a note and then walked to the back of the stage to tinker with the amplifiers as the note rattled the molars of the audience.
Covers of “Sugarfoot Rag” and the concert staple “Surf Medley” demonstrated why Brown is so revered by readers of Guitar Player, but his instrumental wizardry tends to overshadow his gifts as a songwriter. Humorous numbers such as “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” and “Joe The Singing Janitor” would be great even without all the trance-inducing grandstanding.