He was already the consummate showman in cowpunk when he blasted his way onto the scene with the Scorchers in the 1980s, and, against all reason, he is somehow more so now, out, like so many, on the road alone. He is the sort of entertainer (“singer” is an utterly inadequate description) who starts a barroom show such as this one by stepping to the mike and shouting, complete with self-provided auditorium echo, “Ladies and gentlemen; all the way from Nashville, Tennessee — Mister…Jason…Ringenberg!”
The size of the room does not matter (Maxwell’s is a cozy place), nor that laryngitis had left him speechless just the night before, nor the overriding fact that this is one of the coldest nights in a long Northeast freeze, and a Wednesday, so just 35 fans have shown — a decent number at some bars, but much less than usual for him, here.
He lets loose with “Honky Tonk Maniac From Mars” in precisely the same style as if he were not, say, merely opening for the Rolling Stones at a packed Madison Square Garden, but the main event.
Even he can’t quite drown out a couple of friendly but clearly soused fans who take it on themselves to sing along at the top of their lungs from his second number on (Guadalcanal Diary’s “Trail Of Tears”, for the record), Ringenberg rocks harder alone and acoustic than most bands do with Marshall stacks.
He forges ahead nevertheless, nailing a couple of Scorchers favorites (“Help There’s A Fire”, “White Lies”), then turning to his wistful new ballads “Last Train To Memphis” (for Martin Luther King Day) and the unforgettable “Camille”, about his young daughter “spinning and giggling,” as if we didn’t know where she got that from.
He adds a Guthrie-esque tractor song for toddlers just written for his upcoming album of kids’ songs, tossing in a phase-shifting bass line vocally, but still can’t quite shake the carousers…so he surveys the space in the room and makes a strategic decision: He will complete the next hour-plus of this show from down on the floor amidst the people, without a mike, sometimes barely lit, but right there, with us, in our faces.
As the mood strikes, he will fly through the air, inches away from us, roll on the floor, or lean on that post near the entrance like a cowpoke lost in thought. Country is much on his mind now: He moves easily from Merle Haggard’s “Rainbow Stew” to, as he puts it, a number “that has already touched the many troubled men all over the world whose wives have gone out and gotten drunk and come home wanting to make love,” launching into, of course, his gender-bender turn on Loretta’s “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’”.
He rocks up “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel”, as he has since the earliest Scorchers’ recordings, and turns from that juiced-up hillbilly blues to his 21st-century gospel turn “Under Your Command”, apparently his mother’s favorite Jason song. (Jimmie Rodgers clearly leads to thoughts of mother.)
For a positively hypnotic turn on R.E.M.’s “Driver 8″, the four singing songwriters from Philadelphia who’d formed the opening band, Four Way Street, now join in, also down on the floor with the folks, adding backup guitars and snare and harmony vocals. That begets a mini-set with the group which includes soulful versions of Hank’s “I Saw The Light” and The Band’s “The Weight” on the way to Ringenberg’s own inevitable, unstoppable “Broken Whiskey Glass”.
After the gospel numbers, the punk rock, the ballads, the hyped-up honky-tonk, he finishes off with a running leap (actually, several running leaps) to the top of the Maxwell’s showroom bar, slamming and jumping up there to “my favorite piece of American poetry of the past 35 years” — the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”.
“I Saw The Light”. “I Wanna Be Sedated”. When Jason’s on a roll like this, it really all is, as he warned us a long time ago, just reckless country soul.
There may have been a better show somewhere that night, someplace warmer maybe, with cabanas, where they bring out Mai Tais with little umbrellas. But nobody who was at Maxwell’s on a frigid night in January, when everybody voted to turn off the room heater anyway, just to hear it all the better, could really believe that.