S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest – The Brewery (Raleigh, NC)
For two mild winter nights, S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest (that’s Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash Leisure and Entertainment, folks) transformed Raleigh’s premier frills-free nightspot, the Brewery, into a dance held at the grange hall on the other side of Mayberry’s tracks. Loosely based on Chapel Hill’s annual Sleazefest (a weekend of beer, barbecue and all-purpose garage-rock-fueled debauchery), S.P.I.T.T.L.E. was the red-headed stepchild of Greg Mosorjak, the club’s booking agent, who came up with the idea of gathering a dozen of the Southeast’s best alternative-country/twangcore bands.
The first night’s roster included country-boy shtick-ers Family Values (imagine the New Duncan Imperials going completely country), the Uncrowned Nashville Kings, the Nancy Middleton Band (one of the most traditional acts in the fest, although Middleton has enough Maria McKee spunk to hang with the rockers), and another female-fronted band, Charlotte’s Rank Outsiders. The Uncrowned Kings, under the name Red Star Belgrade, released the most haunting song I heard in ’95 — “Union, S.C.”, which guitarist Bill Curry wrote about the Susan Smith murder case — and their set-closing take on it was one of the highlights of the first evening.
Also on the bill was Whiskeytown, the band most people came out to hear. This six-piece, led by baby-faced/ancient-souled Ryan Adams, more than lived up to the hoopla generated by their debut album Faithless Street, as a batch of great songs — most notably “Mining Town” and “Hard Luck Story”, along with a new show-stopper titled “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” — somehow became even better.
Providing a generational perspective to the bill was closing act Sleepy LaBeef, a rockabilly/country legend who started touring about 20 years before Adams was born. As LaBeef launched into a “Polk Salad Annie” medley that spun in “Okie from Muskogee”, “White Lightning”, and other nuggets, a neighbor testified, “The man is God.” Well, not quite. God is a couple years younger.
Night two found more free pig in the side room and six more bands lined up to take the stage. Winston-Salem band the Johnsons and their heartland rock — think the BoDeans with a little pedal steel — made the best of the dreaded 7:30 slot and were followed by semi-satirical acoustic duo Redneck Greece Deluxe, Phil Lee & the Nashville Dogs, and the user-friendly rockabilly of Atlanta’s Blacktop Rockets. Lee, a local roots-rock semi-legend and master showman who recently relocated to Nashville, is the real truck-driving-school-graduating deal. Everybody has their “should have made it big” performer; Lee is mine. And his ode to mobile home love, “Night in the Box”, with which he closed his searing set, could have been the S.P.I.T.T.L.E. theme song.
Six String Drag, whose members’ addresses are split between the Carolinas, brought by far the most side dishes to the picnic. Lead vocalist/guitarist Kenneth Roby and bassist/tenor vocalist Rob Keller kicked off the set with an a capella treatment of the spiritual “Jacob’s Vision”, which the fellas learned from a Stanley Brothers record. (“The Stanley Brothers are our guys,” Roby confessed later; in fact, the band’s name is derived from the Stanley Brothers song “Five String Drag”.)
Roby, who has fronted several decidely non-country bands and still has a glam rocker’s spirit in a porkpie-hat-wearing body, led the band on a stomp through Neil Young’s “Yonder Stands the Sinner”. That was followed by the unveiling of the horn section, with new keyboard player David Wright switching to trombone and Whiskeytown bassist Steve Grothman guesting on sax. Far from a gimmick, the horns took “Gasoline Maybelline” and “Brasstown” — both punchy rockers that recall the Band’s carnival-soul sound — over the top.
Still not satisfied their versatility was evident, Six String Drag offered a slice of Carolina Tex-Mex called “Corazon Bandido” before ending with the Van Morrison-flavored “Standing at the Water” (horns and banjo on that one) and an original gospel number called “The Mountain Song.” The fact that the band didn’t once tap into their self-titled ’95 album, an exceptional collection of modern hoedowns and Uncle Tupelo-ish ballads, is a testament to how much good stuff they carry in their basket.
Wrapping up the festival were the Backsliders, a hometown hardcore honky-tonk/Hank-say-howdy-to-Keith quintet. Chip Robinson’s vocals are heaven-sent, provided heaven is a back porch at 3 a.m. with a bottle being passed. With twin ace guitarists Steve Howell and Brad Rice, bassist Danny Kurtz, and a revolving series of drummers, the band shifts effortlessly from authentic originals to covers of everyone from the Flying Burrito Brothers to the Ramones.
The ‘Sliders kicked things off with a 1-2-3 roadhouse-rock punch of “My Baby’s Gone”, “King of the Honky Tonk” and “Pain of Love” before shifting gears with the Phil Lee-penned “King of the World”, which is what power-pop must sound like in Austin. “Last Train” demonstrated how effectively the Backsliders can quiet things down, but the guitars quickly went from a whisper to a psychedelic scream as the band, especially Rice, stretched out and made like Crazy Horse on a work in progress called “Yep”.
After a romp through “Cowboy Boots” (two steppin’ in double time), the band returned for a fitting one-song encore of “Dead Flowers”, one of the best “goodnight, y’all” songs ever written and a tune the Backsliders have been doing since they were just a duo of Robinson and Howell.
One of the most telling quotes from S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest came from an Uncrowned Kings song early the first night: “We can barely pay the rent/It’s so romantic.” All these bands are doing what they can to make the term “low rent” high praise.