Rogue Country: Hill Country Live with Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, Shooter Jennings, Lukas Nelson @ Saxon Pub
Halfway into his taut set at the Saxon Pub, Shooter Jennings pushed the hank of hair falling in his face back, screwed up his face and half-barked, half-taunted,
“You say you’re an outlaw with your perfect boots
That you got from your record label’s image group
Sing another man’s song with a big drum loop
Listen, son, you ain’t got a clue
You can’t buy true…
Tell you what they should do…
They should outlaw you….”
Not nearly as venomous as it could’ve been, especially at a time when country has become a sanitized, overly homogenized home for slicker-than-arena-rock-post-REO Speedwagon gag’n’swagger. And it didn’t need to.
Thanks to the folks at NYC and DC’s Hill Country Barbeque – ironically the faith is being kept in places like that – the storied Saxon Pub was serving as the temple for all things true and holy in the keeper of the flame of the true Outlaw movement. But even more heartening than the fact that genuine idiom is being preserved in the standards maintained by Billy Joe Shaver and Ray Wylie Hubbard, the future seems assured with Jennings and Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real.
To witness grown men onstage with a bare bones band, with no smoke, lasers, video screens or high tech tricks, just plug in and play, is to understand that country music comes down to bass, drums, guitars and possibly steel or piano. It is basic stuff, given its stopping power by the intent of the performer, the honesty in the songs and the way the vocal delivers. They come to play hard, to tell some truths and raise pulses with the way it all comes together.
Ray Wylie Hubbard, the gonzo songwriter, with his wiry hair wrapped up like Keith Richards, round glasses on his nose and electric guitar hanging low, is the don’t-give-a-fuck artist who’s seen it all, done it at least twice and emerged with all the wisdom of a man who’s lived beyond life’s wild side and sees that pain is healed by love, mercy is a gift and the joke is on anyone who chooses to take the fromp too seriously.
In a set of songs that invoked Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Otis Redding and even the Alarm, Hubbard left no question about the notion of relentless pursuit of the groove, the backbeat or the notion that outlaws aren’t afraid to cross the line. With bassist/producer George Reeves and drummer Rick Richards – both about to hit the road with Joe Walsh – mining deep pockets for the songs to set in, this was dirty music rendered with the confidence of a man who can get the job done.
Early in the set, he whipped out the grinding “Snake Farm,” a churning song about a stripper who knows the reality of the wages she turns. With a voice scraped rough from sin, lust, living, misadventure and turning it all around, Hubbard gets through the funk to announce, “I forgot to mention something: this song is a sing-along… It ain’t exactly ‘Kumbaya,’ but it is appropriate –- Look at you!”
With gusto, the audience took up the luridly metaphoric chorus. Savoring every syllable, it’s that notion of partying with pirates that made the collected rednecks, cowgirls, hippie kids, scenesters and everyday Texans raise their voices and their beers with gusto.
For 50 minutes, Hubbard never let up. Talk of debauched French romantic poets from the late 1800s set up the lumbering “Drunken Poet’s Dream.” There was the pummeling “Downhome Country Blues,” with a bass part thicker’n rendered molasses propelling the ingredient list for how to make it happen. Even a shameless call and response audience product placement that saw the assembled repeating “March 27,” “The Grifters Hymnal” and “I’m gonna buy it” in perfect lockstep.
It all came to a head with the surging “It’s Time To Rock & Roll,” all stab and thrust’n’holler as it mines jealousy and ecstasy with 17-year old son Lucas on slithering electric guitar, just enough wah-wah pedal to evoke blaxploitation and a cyclone whip of (re)vengeance to blast the set even higher.
Building to a chorus that seemed the fruition of the Ramones channeled through the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was enough to prompt a whoop from Eric Burdon, discreetly seated at a booth to the side. A tangle of sparks and mayhem, the band pushed the frenzy to exhaustion, leading the song to a slow collapse, spent, sweaty and satisfied.
Lucas Hubbard may be only 17, but he has the nonplussed exterior and savvy stringmanship to hold his own on that stage. It’s about what the guitar can do in his hands, greasy, boiling, broiling and soulful in turn. On a night about keeping the faith for what was country’s most renegade period, he was one son of four – if you include the ghost of Eddie Shaver, the player who could elicit the most vicious tone from his electric guitar, who’d spent many years playing in his father’s band after a stint setting kerosence and gasoline on fire with Dwight Yoakam.
Billy Joe Shaver, a raucous honky tonker who saw Waylong Jennings record an entire album of his songs (Honky Tonk Heroes), as well John Anderson (“Old Chunk of Cold”), Patty Loveless (“When Fallen Angels Fly”) and Johnny Cash (“Love Forever”), was as earthy as Hubbard was rank. A wild-lifer who lost his wife, son and mother within a year, beaten a murder charge and lost three fingers in a saw mill accident, his good times are tempered with a strong dose of salvation.
Late in his set with a tight three pieces behind him, Shaver had the band drop out and his cracked dirt voice found the changes of “Live Forever,” the minimal gospel song of how to live and believe in faith. When the verse about “Now all you fathers and you mothers, take care of one and other/ Try to raise your children right/ Don’t let the darkness find them, always guide them to the light…,” a pall fell over the towering songwriter, no doubt thinking of his son and musical running buddy. At song’s end, the man who’d spent an entire set with a twinkle in his eye and a strong sense of libido tempering his set, got down on one knee and swept off his banged up cowboy hat.
That tender reverence is what allows men like this to be as wild as they are. Deep down, they are good, strong and worthy. Whether it’s standing up to condescending snobbery and calling life as he lives it with the set opening “Georgia On A Fast Train,” complete with drum solo, the bawdy tease of “That’s What She Said Last Night” or the strictly lust-addled “Hottest Thing in Town,” Shaver isn’t afraid of how he feels, where he’s headed or being a roughneck.
With a set strewn with gems from country music from the ’70s to today, it was on “Ride Me Down Easy,” delivered as a more sultry, less frenetic feel, that the truth of these men emerged. “I’m easy come, I’m easy go/ I’m easy to love when I stay,” he sang, as much an admonition to himself as a suggestion that he’s worth the ride.
“It’s not what you put in your mouth that defiles us, but what comes out,” Shaver informed the audience, winking at a rail-thin girl in low-slung jeans and a cowboy hat dancing near the stage. “So drink up and watch what you say…”
Hell-raisin, salvation, exhortation and getting’ by is the fabric of Shaver’s songs, and this night, they were delivered with twangy aplomb, notes flying and the crowd whooping as the iconic Texan shuffled in place, showed the girls how to throw a punch and slow-danced alone with us all. As the band jammed on a gospel number, a door at the side of the stage opened. He slipped outside, and left the crowd in awe.
If some of the grown-ups who remembered when headed for home, they were replaced with what seemed like an exponential number of young 20-somethings in the already oxygenless Saxon Pub. They’d come to hear the songs of their own country rebellion, tendered by the spawn of two certifiable legends, each of whom were blazing their own trail secure in the foundation of their own parents’ musical pioneering.
Jennings, stringy hair and rose-colored aviators, is a whip-thin rendering of his father. Swagger-firm and right hand pumping hard on that guitar, he spun small domestic details and history lessons into an hour-long set that reminded people of Waylon’s insurrectionist nature.
As pools of pedal steel soaked the stage, the tempo built to a fever-pitch, the words stacking upon themselves, anchored with the profession, “I’ll chase the night until I die…” Equal parts punk urgency and 18 wheels on a steep grade honky tonk, Shooter seems to be seeking a whole new hybrid.
Comfortable in the mid-tempo, as well, his “Gone To Carolina,” takes the classic rock jammage of the Allman Brothers with a bit of Skynrd’s burn, the bravado of David Allen Coe at this most lonesome to pack a haunted groove with the reasons for getting gone.
While letting the band burn is a strong point of what Jennings is reaching for, it is the slowing it down – be it the a capella opening verse of the near gospel “Turn My Water Into Wine,” which later explodes into a full musical assault or the acoustic ponderance of great love in the face of aging “Daddy’s Hands” – where his eye for domesticity in the eye of the hurricane stands out. He has lived a farflung life, and it is best served in those reflective moments in the sonic blast.
Still, these are songs from a real life, not crafted – as “Outlaw You” suggests – by a team of writers machining clichés and touchstones for the illusion of authenticity.
After kicking off “4th of July,” Jennings realizes how close he is to where the song came down. Halfway through the first verse, he pulls up shorts and decides to tell the story… of going to Willie’s Picnic, of the Grateful Dead paying, Neil Young jamming with them and how it felt to be young, falling in love, rocking out and traveling in pursuit of both his dream and his heritage.
When the band struck back up, the euphoria was evident. Feeling like the best of the Eagles’ sweeping songs, but he’s not brokering the notion of a lifestyle, so much as sending postcards to the rest of us from his own life of the dissolute and drifting. To be a gypsy, to be young and on fire, that is everything he – and the crowd – have come to clebrate… and they do.”
After a longer-than-the-rest set change, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real finds the tiny stage as well. Like Jennings, Nelson is in the process of staking a claim to the same kind of truth as his father Willie has: making music beyond the labels and the formats, to create songs that embody emotions and hope that people find themselves living in them, too.
Like his father, he knows to hit the stage blazing. Working a slightly less flamboyant ZZ Top blues motif, “I Get Wasted, Baby” is equal parts good-time, hell no and yeah well.
His voice – high, reedy, slightly nasal – cuts through the four pieces, but its his guitar with its fat, bracing sound that really sets the tone for a set that spills over its hour into a stew that recalls Santana’s seriously polyrhythmic jammage and liquid guitar solos that marks the night.
The first song goes on for eight minutes, with multiple instrumental breakdowns. The propulsive nature of the blues is interwoven with rock in a way that transcends genre – and the physicality of Nelson’s playing is notable. Also, this is not random jammage, but shaped by forethought and musicians pushing each other on the bandstand.
The stripper pole grind of “Lover Is a Four Letter Word” gives the band the opportunity to play with a force of purpose, all burlesque and torque in celebration of carnal drives. Even the quieter “Sound of Your Memory,” a tortured song of lonesome that allows Nelson’s tenor to haunt the space, has more velocity than most garage bands, stadium acts or arena fillers.
Nelson’s sister Amy joined him onstage for “Memory,” as well as his brother Mike who was onstage making a free-form painting throughout the set. Expanding on the notion of Willie’s legendary Family band, Nelson is quick to bring Amy and sister Paula back to the stage for a fever-pitched rendition of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
As the coiled rhythms expand and constrict under the scalding playing of conga player Tonto Muldovar and drummer Anthony Lopez, it’s a whole other take on Satan’s plea for equanimity. All four siblings sing the chorus, with the sisters adding the requisite “oooh OOOOHS” like stone soul children, and Lukas’ taunting/witnessing “What’s my name?” vamp on the end adds a traveling preacher/carny flavor to the whole thing.
Drawing from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Middle Eastern textures, hints of David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” and “Rebel Rebel” as well Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin Band,” Nelson’s own oeuvre is a seamless work of myriad influences, something that is both rooted in the vast musical curiosity that’s defined his father and ultimately his own fresh take on modern music.
With plenty songs about getting lost, getting hurt and, yes, getting high, he in many ways can represent for his generation what his father did for another age of drop-outs, shit-kickers, intellectuals, free spirits, rogues and music lovers. It is not about the calculation or maximizing reach, but creating something that is pleasing to his own ear – and the quixotic elements that come together hold the listener by virtue of what might happen next.
Nelson is a physical performer, who seems energized by the music. More animated as the set plays out. It is after 2:30 , the night has gone on and on – and yet, the band plays on.
After a monumental build, the guitar and bass come down with a monumental thud and leave “Sympathy” gasping for air. The churning rhythm is etched with those stinging notes, and the packed crowd goes wild.
It would’ve been a standing ovation had not everyone already been on their feet as a churning mass dancing to what had transpired.
And so, again, in a club somewhere in Austin, that which is country, which is rock and roll shot through with blues, deep grooves, attack playing and a sense of passion finds its way. Just like the last time Nashville lost its soul, there are a few folks keeping the faith – and if they have their way, this music will never die. You just have to know where to find it and – as the unlikely advocates Public Enemy proclaimed – don’t belive the hype.