S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Festival – The Brewery (Raleigh, NC)
The Brewery is the perfect setting for this, the third year of a “Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash Leisure & Entertainment,” with the required amount of dark interior spaces, cramped stage and odd characters such as the weekend’s quasi-host, pro wrestler M. C. DaBeers (and his cohort Count Grog, actually the club’s booking agent), who incited the crowd to nervous laughter (“Is this guy for real?”) and sustained cheering that he claimed would be used on the planned recorded release of highlights from the weekend.
Local hard-up honky-tonkers the Hickups aren’t quite as catchy as their name, but they provided a nice kickoff for the festival with their credible version of roadhouse country and covers of not only Hank Williams Sr., but also Steve Earle and 6 String Drag. The enterprising Raleigh band smartly offered to come back the next evening and play for free between mainstage sets, in a corner of the side room where the Brewery was providing complimentary barbecue both nights.
The Accelerators, a semi-legendary North Carolina band that once counted Backsliders guitarist Brad Rice as a member, cranked out some hard-hitting barroom rock, interrupted only once for an inexplicably average rendition of the Elvis hit ballad “I Can’t Help Falling In Love”.
Trailer Bride, another native Triangle area group, has an album coming out on Bloodshot Records soon and a reputation for hillbilly-noir that outpaces the tepid set they delivered this night, probably a result of the lead guitarist’s recent departure. The newly rudderless trio wandered through some atonal, droning numbers before closing with an eerie instrumental that featured a bowed saw in place of the guitar.
An evening in danger of sinking under too much questionable local talent was rescued by the first of the visiting dignitaries, R.B. Morris. Playing an acoustic guitar and backed only by a single electric guitarist, he fought against feedback, an obviously sore throat, and a loud crowd, emerging with his singular synthesis of John Prine and Tom Waits intact.
The battle appeared to be over about the time Blue Mountain hit the stage for an inspiring set. Their new bassist, introduced simply as George, fits in nicely and allows Laurie Stirratt and Cary Hudson the luxury of switching electric or acoustic guitars at random without thinning out the sound. From the opening locomotive punch of “Bloody 98” through Hudson’s vibrant solos on “Soul Sister”, they rocked consistently and constantly, slowing the assault only temporarily for midtempo favorites such as “Blue Canoe” and “Myrna Lee”.
Friday night’s headliners were another Raleigh band, Two Dollar Pistols (as in, “Hotter than a…”). They lived up to their name with a fine set of hard country that referenced everything from Ray Price to Dwight Yoakam, and a lot in between. Lead singer John Howie’s voice is deeper than the bottom of an empty whiskey glass, and the band’s ten-gallon hats — the first ones in evidence thus far — were as appropriate as the heartbreak-strewn subject matter of their songs. In addition to excellent originals from their debut CD On Down The Track, the Pistols delivered a dead-on rendition of the Charley Pride-penned hit, “I Can’t Believe That You Stopped Loving Me”.
Saturday’s festivities started with a bang, the Skynyrd-style raunch-rock of Big Joe. The pleasant surprise of the festival, however, was Buffalo, New York, band Steam Donkeys. The lone Yankee band in attendance, they atoned for their geographical sins by turning in an excellent set punctuated by the broadly grinning mug of lead singer Buck Quigley and the phenomenal fiddle and vocal talents of Doug Moody. Aside from clever tunes such as “Jesus On The 90” (Our Lord as disappearing hitchhiker), “Pothead” (sing it to “Rawhide” and pass it on), and a jaw-dropping instrumental fiddle medley of “The William Tell Overture”, “Battle Of New Orleans”, Blackfoot’s “Train, Train”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Wabash Cannonball”, and a couple more I may have missed, the highlight of the set was actually the encore. Coaxed into playing one more, Moody led the band by singing, “The candy colored clown they call the sandman…” as they proceeded to sail through an inspired cover of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”.
Chip Robinson, lead singer and guitarist for the Backsliders, was fresh and enthusiastic about his solo acoustic performance despite commenting that he’d just driven 16 hours straight after a month of drinking and recording the band’s new album in New Orleans with Eric Ambel. “It don’t sound nothin’ like the last one,” Robinson remarked, and proceeded to prove his own double-negative with a couple new songs, the beautiful cheater’s lament “Cross Your Heart” and another in a Tom Petty/Bruce Springsteen mode. Billed as “Chip Robinson and Friends,” the “and friends” turned out to be a local yokel who accompanied Robinson’s final song with two full Comet Rice boxes for makeshift maracas.
The real payoff for the long weekend of music started with the appearance of the Cigar Store Indians, a kinetic rockabilly quartet from Atlanta with a serious case of the can’t-stand-still syndrome. Singer Ben Friedman was all over the tiny Brewery stage, cavorting from monitors and speakers, egging the crowd on. They in turn drew on the band’s energy and proceeded to cut loose and cut a rug, turning S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest into the party it had been threatening to become. As a measure of how warmly they were received, Cigar Store Indians were honored with the first double encore of the show, thanking the crowd with a sweaty version of “Burning Love”.
The Derailers kept up the momentum handed to them, cranking out their trademark Bakersfield sound like men who would be Buck Owens if they could. Easily winning the “Best Dressed” award with their Nashville garb and seriously greased hairstyles, the Derailers have the distinction of looking as good as they sound. If hip country music is to have a commercially acceptable face, it just may belong to the Derailers, who were aware of their own origins enough to offer up a twangy “Tiger By The Tail” as their closing number.
If you’d seen eleven bands in two nights, you might be as exhausted as some of the waning crowd in the late hour that the Bottle Rockets began, but they were given no reprieve from this band. Launching into a fiercely hard-rocking set, Brian Henneman immediately lived up to the promise of serious ballistic boogie in his choice of wardrobe for the evening, a Foghat T-shirt. By far the loudest band all weekend, they blew through crowd favorites such as “Radar Gun” like a rejuvenated ZZ Top. The Bottle Rockets’ appeal to the alt-country crowd, however, is more in the innards and outcasts of Brian Henneman’s songs. Highlights of those thrown onto this festival-closing fire were the touching “Indianapolis” and the redneck political commentary of “Wave That Flag”, with the memorable line, “If somebody owned your ass, how would you feel?”
As the Bottle Rockets closed out S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest ’98 with “Kit Kat Clock”, I reflected on the comment made onstage the night before by Two Dollar Pistols singer John Howie. Conversing with the audience between songs, he brought up this year’s Country Music Association awards. “Any of y’all know what CMA stands for?” he demanded. “Country My Ass, that’s what.” Not everything at S.P.I.T.T.L.E. was country music, and Raleigh isn’t Nashville East; but more of what was here qualifies than the current crop of nominees from Music Row, and that’s reason enough for this festival to continue to grow.