With the Fourth landing on a Saturday this year, Gabe’s augmented its traditional holiday “Firecracker 500″ retro/garage/punk bash with a bonus Friday lead-in featuring the output of four songwriters whose diverse yet connected visions of roots-rock ‘n’ country clearly demonstrated why this corner of American music is as fascinating as it is hard to pin down.
The opening act of Kenny Roby and Chip Robinson was a last minute add-on which, because of a mix-up on the starting time between club and musicians, led to the anxious bar staff and a semi-impatient crowd gazing at an empty stage while the boys were lounging casually back at the hotel. How much that minor snafu affected the performance is difficult to say, since the temporary duo’s mini-tour was something of a patched-together, jump-in-the-car-and-go affair to begin with.
Furthermore, the circumstances under which the pair’s respective primary vehicles currently find themselves could hardly be more different or unsettling. Roby was available on a brief hiatus from a stretch of 6 String Drag gigs that included a few shows in which they backed E-Squared labelmate Bap Kennedy; Robinson’s Backsliders, on the other hand, have effectively evaporated. With a follow-up to 1997′s elegant Throwin’ Rocks At The Moon in the can, Robinson’s primary foil, Steve Howell, left for Two Dollar Pistols, after which Danny Kurtz and Brad Rice jumped on Ryan Adams’ Whiskeytown merry-go-round. All of which leaves Robinson — temporarily, at least — something of a car without wheels.
Robinson and Roby pretty much took turns in their spirited (if a bit ragged) 40-minute set, accompanying themselves in workmanlike fashion on acoustic guitars. Both are fine singers and songwriters, but the edge on this night clearly belonged to Robinson, who seemed more confident and sure-handed on his material and more at ease in the stripped-down setting. The fact that his material is essentially countrified folk, while Roby’s is primarily countrified pop, probably had much to do with how the songs went over as well.
Cutting loose his warm, rich drawl like a hotshot hick on a bender, Robinson glided over the bouncy “Angelita”, waltzed through his cheatin’ songs “Cross Your Heart” (as Roby chimed in with the set’s harmony highlight) and “Two Candles”, and sang the heck out of John Prine’s “Mexican Home”. Roby plied his reedy, resonant pipes on his own “A Sailor’s Request”, the bouncy “Glad It Wasn’t Me”, “Book Of Time” and the stirring “Keep On Pushing”, adding a nifty cover of the hillbilly warhorse “Honey Dew”.
Despite the occasional vocal harmony and the courtesy strumalongs, the set was more of a “battle of the solos” than a “proper” duet, presenting interesting alternate views of the work of two admirable, growing talents. If the overall edge went to Robinson, Roby was anything but an also-ran.
Nashville’s Kevin Gordon and his supercharged band jumped out of the gate like the law was on their tails, delivering a taut, muscular 10-song set that blended echoes of early rock ‘n’ roll, heartland ballads and hip-shaking, Stones-flavored blues-rock. Gordon leaned into the crowd with insistent fervor, culling the eight hottest tracks from his current Cadillac Jack’s #1 Son in addition to “Illinois 5 a.m.” (his and Gwil Owen’s freewheeling remake/remodel of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”) and the honking closer “Deuce And A Quarter” (which Gordon wrote for Keith Richards’ contribution to the All The King’s Men project). The rhythm section of Rick Schell and Jim Whitfield kept a tight rein on the proceedings as MVP Joe McMahan aped a snarling, crosscut saw on lead and slide guitar. From the swaggering grind of “Over The Levee” to the helpless heartbreak of “Dissatisfied” to the aching nostalgia of “Evan Pick Up The Line”, Gordon and band snapped off a compact, fat-free tour de force that was a textbook lesson in combining stylistic diversity, economy and jelly-kneed knockout punches.
Then, like looters in the aftermath of a tornado, Festus, Missouri’s favorite sons, the Bottle Rockets, careened onstage and commenced to do for “sloppy” what Gordon and his crew had done for “tight.” Employing their own take on the “K.I.S.S. method” (Keep It Stoopid, Simpleton), the Rockets raged in and out of focus under the blistering cover of shredding amplifiers. Coughing up proven faves from their three discs along with covers both brain-damaged (the Coug’s “Little Pink Houses” nestled in the midst of a stupefying “Indianapolis”/”1000 Dollar Car” ‘medley’) and brilliant (a blazing, powerhouse take on Bowie’s “Suffragette City”), frontman Brian Henneman and his rock ‘n’ roll arsonists torched the lot — laughing all the way.
Volume dealers with an unstoppable determination to party hearty, the Bottle Rockets harbor no mysteries (“There are no metaphors in our music,” boasted Henneman) and suffer no wimps. Fittingly — both for the occasion and their name — the Bottle Rockets followed the night’s suspenseful, hold-your breath lift-off and dazzling, arcing ascent with a colorful, in-your-face explosion.