Most every decent-sized city has one: a summer concert series with an apparent emphasis on acts from the “Where Are They Now?” file. So far this summer, Raleigh’s biweekly series has featured Firehouse and the Romantics, and Night Ranger was headlining on this night. But it was the Backsliders, a name that hadn’t appeared on a concert bill since an Alejandro Escovedo benefit in 2003, that drew many to this large park in the middle of downtown Raleigh. Back in the alt-country geographic-center days of the mid-’90s, I was enrolled in the Backsliders concert series; at least it felt like I saw them every other week. Night Ranger fans have their brand of nostalgia, I have mine.
There had been some online grumbling about how it wasn’t really the Backsliders without the presence of co-founder Steve Howell, an issue that other co-founder Chip Robinson addressed from the stage. “You can call us 49 Monkeys In A Barrel if you want,” he announced a few songs in. “We’re just some friends playing together.”
As assemblages of friends go, it was an impressive one: Danny Kurtz, the bassist for all three Backsliders releases; Dave Bartholomew, a member of half the bands in the Triangle including the Robinson-led Vibekillers, on lead guitar; drummer Terry Anderson from the Olympic Ass Kickin Team and the Yayhoos, and the veteran of a couple late-inning Backsliders tours; and keyboardist Greg Rice on loan from the Cartridge Family and the Olympic Ass Kickin Team. In the middle was Robinson, these days an in-demand bike mechanic in Brooklyn, looking more professorial than wild-eyed behind glasses yet still a force as a frontguy.
“Still Feeling Blue”, rocked up but its honky-tonk heart intact, set a lofty tone for the set. “Throwin’ Rocks At The Moon” and “Abe Lincoln”, two examples of roots-rock of the highest, and hookiest, order, kept it there. The Backsliders’ stab at country soul, “It Rained On Monday”, was another highlight, with Rice as Spooner Oldham (the role played by the Skeletons’ Joe Terry on record). Elsewhere, there were stops for “Forever Came Today” from Anderson’s fellow Yayhoo Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (a song recorded by the Backsliders on Southern Lines), and a Stones-by-way-of-Alejandro “Sway”.
In the closer spot — there wasn’t enough time for a proper “Cowboy Boots” — was “Angelita”, Robinson’s most Springsteenian of efforts. The set’s one big surprise was when the breakdown of “Angelita” gave way to a striking take on “Bells” from Jeffrey Dean Foster of the Right Profile and the Carneys, two North Carolinas band that should have been huge several years before the Backsliders should have been huge.
With that, Night Ranger fans began gearing up for their guys, those twangy dudes finally done. A handful of folks headed across the street to the Pour House where the Vibekillers would hit the stage around midnight for the second half of the Chip Robinson double-header. And one guy, unlike 1996, headed home. Sways change.