The Derailers deliver one hell of a honky-tonk Saturday night.
The band’s hard, swinging shuffle is nailed down tight by drummer Mark Horn, a flawless timekeeper in the Buddy Harman mode; Horn smiles so broadly throughout the Derailers’ sets that you’d swear he’s having even more fun than the fans who sway and dance along to his freight-train beats. Ed Adkins, the group’s unflappable bassist, peppers his country grooves with just a little bit of soul. Rhythm guitarist Tony Villanueva sings in bouncy, slurred melismas of singular tone and texture, and lead guitarist Brian Hofeldt, he of the curled lip and the ringing Telecaster, fires off licks and solos that would make anyone want to rush out and take up electric guitar. Indeed, when Villanueva and Hofeldt, joined by Adkins, come together center stage for a bit of choreography that concludes with the necks of their guitars raised heavenward, it is thrillingly clear why God created Leo Fender.
Like their musical heroes, Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, the Derailers see themselves first and foremost as entertainers. The extents to which they take their showmanship — synchronized stage moves, well-rehearsed banter, western suits with matching red-sequined ties, nearly nonstop winking at audience members — might even strike some as shameless. But that would assume there’s something shameful in simply showing folks a good time.
And the more folks, the better. For the past few years, the Derailers have been on a mission to ensure that as many people as possible hear, and enjoy, their music. The band left Austin indie Watermelon Records to sign with major-label Sire in 1997. They have released limited-edition green and blue vinyl 45s, toured throughout America and parts of Europe almost incessantly, and performed on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”. One of the band’s instrumentals, “Ellen”, was featured on the Fox TV show “King Of The Hill”, and they’ve even been part of a promotion that included Derailers guitar picks in specially marked packages of Doritos. Last year, “The Right Place”, a single from their Full Western Dress album, became Country Music Television’s most requested video for seven weeks running. About the only thing they haven’t done is crack country radio.
With their latest album, the band’s first for Sony Music subsidiary Lucky Dog, the Derailers want to change that. The new project finds them teamed with big-name Nashville producer Kyle Lehning (Randy Travis, George Jones, Bryan White), and for the first time the band has recorded several new songs by outside songwriters (including Kostas and Jim Lauderdale). The result of these moves, the band believes, is the finest album of its career — and one that may at last give them an in with mainstream country radio. Not for nothing is the album titled Here Come The Derailers.
The new album hit stores on Tuesday, September 11, a day that instantly placed things such as release parties and burgeoning recording careers in a different perspective. “It was a date we’d been looking forward to for a long time,” Hofeldt notes the following Friday on the phone from Lincoln, Nebraska. “But of course it ended up being pretty severely overshadowed by far more important developments.” The band’s Tuesday night show at Schuba’s in Chicago was canceled, as was the band’s flight to New York the following morning for a gig at Village Underground. On Friday, the foursome climbed aboard its bus and headed west for Lincoln’s Pla-Mor Ballroom.
“It’s been a really tough week for everyone,” Hofeldt continues. “Maybe we can help just a tiny bit by helping folks have a good time. Maybe people tonight will just be in a mood to come out, see a show, and have some fun. There’s only so much time you can sit there and watch minute-by-minute updates. I mean, the ongoing coverage is so important, but I think we’re going to need some other outlets too.”
Indeed, the crowd that gathers the next night at Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club in midtown Kansas City, Missouri, appears eager to set aside its worries, if only for a few hours. The bar television broadcasts CNN, but virtually no one is watching. Around the club, conversations touch upon the week’s only headline, then quickly latch on to the security of more familiar topics: work troubles, upcoming shows, friendly gossip. The venue, packed nearly to capacity, brims with a desire for diversion.
Earlier that evening in a concert at Kansas City’s Ameristar Casino, Merle Haggard had commented upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks quite explicitly. Prompted by shouted requests that began the instant he took the stage, Haggard eventually played “Fightin’ Side Of Me” as fans stomped in the bleachers and chanted U-S-A. But it was his opening selection, a ghostly reading of “Silver Wings”, that most eloquently expressed the audience’s grief.
The Derailers haven’t developed a repertoire that lends itself to social commentary the way Haggard’s does, and, at any rate, they’re not a group given to political pronouncements. They address the week’s disaster only between the lines. Before introducing “Waltz Of The Angels”, a ballad that on their Full Western Dress album featured guest vocals by Buck Owens himself, Villanueva notes that the band recently performed the song on the Grand Ole Opry. “We’ve played the show about a dozen times now,” he’d explained over the phone the day before. Tonight in Kansas City, he tells the crowd, “We’re so proud to be part of that 75 years of country tradition.” Then he adds, to brief but intense shouts of approval, “American tradition.”
A more typical Derailers moment comes in the midst of a rocket-fueled version of Marty Robbins’ “Knee Deep In The Blues”. “Do you want us to jam?” Hofeldt asks, and the crowd’s response is unmistakably, joyously, in the affirmative. “Then jam we must,” he concludes. It is the jams — “Knee Deep”, an extended “Folsom Prison Blues”, and “a little trip” that starts with the group’s notorious cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” before moving seamlessly into versions of hits by Slim Harpo, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry — that are the most galvanizing moments of the night. Occasionally the band’s showbiz moves prove a bit much for some (overheard: “Why does that guitar player keep winking at me? It’s kind of creepy”), but as the set concludes, it’s clear, as the saying goes, that a good time has been had by all.
When the band returns to the stage for an encore, drummer Mark Horn, his shirt soaked and sporting a mile-wide grin, pauses at the mike. “I truly got to say ‘God bless America,’” he enthuses. “‘Cause where else could a country fuck like me live like this and just have fun?” During the band’s enthusiastically appreciated performance, Horn’s pledge of allegiance inspires the biggest cheer of the night.