Horton Heat Hayride Brings Big Bag Of Presents To First Avenue


The 2nd Annual Reverend Horton Heat Holiday Hay Ride stormed through the Mainroom last night.  It seems as though there is a growing legion of bands putting together holiday themed shows.  I have been doing my best to catch as many as possible this year.  Couple more to go.  But they’ll be hard pressed to match this one simply based on the level of talent deployed and the sheer volume of tunes delivered.

Late in the evening, in a section of the show wherein The Reverend had Big Sandy (of Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys) fronting the band, Sandy opined:  “I am so humbled to be on this bill.  We’ve got Phil Alvin from The Blasters.  Junior Brown and Jim Heath (aka The Reverend) all together.  When you’re talking about Americana music, that’s like Mt Rushmore!  Putting me in here is like trying to spray paint some kind of Jackie Gleason up there.”

Sandy was underselling himself.  But the rest of that statement was right on the money.

The show opened an hour earlier than normal.  That’s what happens when you put three headliner bands on the same bill.  It would be criminal to cut anybody short.  Based on crowd response, I’d surmise that equal numbers were there for each of the three.  Yet because they fit together so seamlessly, if you liked one it was impossible not to appreciate the others.

First out of the barn was Downey, California’s Blasters, a rockabilly powerhouse that’s been on the road for 40 years.  If ever there is a discussion about the best live bands going (and going and going) I’m always quick to inject The Blasters into the debate.  While such discussions end up being about opinion and differences in criteria, the fact of the matter is that I know I’ve seen this band more than any other touring act.  I was blown away back in 1981.  I continue to be blown away whenever they take the stage.

There are an almost unlimited number of reasons a band can be considered remarkable.  But in this case I point to their fan base.  Blaster fans are loyal.  They never miss a show; they are ready and able to sing along with every song.  At the same time, you can watch them gathering up new converts as they blast away.  A Blasters’ audience isn’t as grey as you might imagine.  A new generation of rockers is all over this band.  It might be that the style is visceral.  It could be this ever present element of “bad boy” that has always been a hallmark.  More likely, it’s the fact that if you write great songs, those songs can stand the test of time.  Phil Alvin has written a trunk full. 

In the preview for this show, I repeated a description of Alvin which a good friend made years ago.  “It’s like Moses comin’ down from the Rockabilly mountain!”  So what’s the deal with all the mountain analogies?  My friend referenced Mount Sinai.  Big Sandy mentioned Rushmore.  Suffice to say when you stand there listening to Dark Knight, American Music, Marie Marie, Border Radio and One Big Stud, you get it.  Alvin is an icon.

I’d never seen Junior Brown before.  Frankly, this was the piece of the bill I was least excited to see.  It had more to do with lumping him into the “billy” side of the Rockabilly equation.  Truth be told, I have a relatively low twang tolerance.  What I learned was that a closed mind probably steers us away from many of life’s potential pleasures.  Because I sure liked Mr Brown once I wrapped my mind around what he was up to.

Honky-Tonk country?  You better believe it.  Right on down to the Stetson, aw shucks old school patter and Tanya Rae Brown, his darlin’ wife of 30 years, beside him.  On one level, everything about this band seems a living, breathing stereotype.  Like some exhibit from The Grand Ole Opry.  On another level, when somebody gets a reputation like Junior’s and fills venues like The Mainroom, there’s a damn good reason.

In my recalculated opinion, it’s because there’s nobody out there still doing what he’s doing at the level at which he does it.  And that level is built upon the fact that this man is a powerhouse guitar player.  You need Twang?  Look no further than his custom built double necked guitar.  Half is classic Fender Telecaster.  Half is a lap steel to which he liberally applies a slide.  No pedals or effects.  Just this amazing range of tones generated by hands and volume control. 

Jim Heath later in the evening called him the greatest guitar player on the planet.  A bit of hyperbole to be sure.  But if you talk to certain people about guitar players, those country boys often come up.  Merle Haggard, Gene Clark, Glen Campbell.  Put Junior Brown squarely in that pantheon.

But don’t pigeonhole him quite yet.  He wound down his set by doing an Albert King tribute, his favorite guitar player of all time.  If you closed your eyes, you could hear all hulking 6’8″ of the Chicago blues titan as he chugged along with that Gibson Flying V.  Then you open them up again to see this old opry cowboy picking the strings.  Or a dash of Dick Dale because who wouldn’t want a bit of surf guitar?  Junior Brown was a hoot!

Let us not forget this thing was a Christmas show.  The crowd was fully revved up when The Rev took the stage.  Frontman Jim Heath sported a bright red Christmas suit, replete with candy cane piping and Colonel Sanders bow tie.  A cheesy silver tinsel tree with one of those rotating multi-colored lights sat atop bass player Jimbo Wallace’s amp.  I’m sorry, if you grew up in a house with a parent(s) who thought one of those abominations was cool.  You know who you are!  A couple of big wrapping bows festooned the stage.

The band opened with an instrumental version of These Three Kings.  As should always be expected from these guys, it was a bit twisted and reminded me of Link Wray (Rumble) taking a crack at the carol.  If Tim Burton ever decides to do another warped Christmas movie, the choice of who’s on the soundtrack should be an easy decision.

This was immediately followed with a driving rocker before returning to the Christmas theme with Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me.  At this point the basic structure of the show was spelled out for us.  It would be a combo platter of classic Heat, wrenched around Christmas carols and selections from the brand new album Whole New Life.

The fourth song of the set had Heath walking up to his 50’s style microphone and screeching:  “First Avenue!  It’s a Psychobilly Freak Out!”  The crowd erupted.  Suddenly younger fans were moshing in front of the stage.  How on earth does a show go from an aw shucks Texas cowboy to a mosh bit?  That was the point.  This was a Hayride!  A throw back event hearkening back to the kind of tours that ended not far from the Surf Ballroom; when Buddy Holly’s plane went down and took the Big Bopper with him.  It’s Christmas and among those myriad packages there’s a present for everybody, no matter your style.

I thought the Physchobilly Freak Out may have been a bit premature.  Particularly if the formula of rocker/carol was kept in place.  What could you have up your sleeve that wouldn’t be a let down?  Maybe a 15 foot tall, inflatable Rudolph with a red LED nose.  Rudolph remained with us for the duration of the evening.

Our first taste of the new Horton Heat album came next with Hard Time Woman.  Hard, lean and driving.  While the album won’t officially drop until November 30, copies were available at First Avenue.  Based on the songs we heard from it, I suspect the band sold plenty of them.

As the evening wore on, Heath was quick to feature the members of his band.  The young Matt Jordan manned the keyboard.  Hair slicked and animated, he was a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis.  Pounding, rolling and indulging in excess every step of the way.  Drummer RJ Contreras was half of a remarkable rhythm section driving the band forward.  Tossing sticks and flashing rock and roll devil horns whenever he delivered a riff he particularly enjoyed.  

But the long time running mate of Heath is Jimbo Wallace and his sturdy stand up bass.  The tatooed dynamo is a crowd favorite.  That was clear when the band took the stage.  Amidst the welcoming roar were chants of Jimbo, Jimbo!  Bad ass rockabilly is all about the bottom end.  We saw two of the finest on the planet last night in The Blasters John Bazz and The Rev’s Jimbo Wallace.

Midway through the set, Heath stopped the festivities long enough to re-set the stage and introduce Robert Williams, aka Big Sandy from the western swing/boogie band Big Sandy and His Fly Rite Boys.  He told the story of how some 25 years ago friends kept telling him he needed to check out this band.  How what they were doing was very much from the same vein.  When he first heard him playing that night down in Austin at the Continental Club, Heath said it changed his life.  He characterized him as having the finest voice in the whole rockabilly, Americana scene.

Big Sandy is a big man.  He’s Hollywood Jackie Gleason.  Black slicked hair, tailored black suit, an undersized bright red Horton Heat Holiday Hayride neck tie.  And the voice of an angel.  He’s the consummate showman and the band was more than happy to step back and let him shine for the next half hour.  

In keeping with the alternating theme, Sandy mixed season songs with early classics.  From Santa’s Loving You to a bit of George Jones, he covered the waterfront.  One of my favorite moments was when he talked about how back in the heyday of those 45 rpm’s you always got the big hit on the A side of the record.  But when you flipped it over you often got the killer track on the B side.  To prove the point he rolled out Chuck Berry’s mellowist, crooniest Havana Moon.  He asked for and received an audience willing to sing the chorus with him.

On and on the band went, never letting up.  I didn’t check the running time but I will say we all got our money’s worth and then some.  As the night drove to a close, I felt like I needed the people around me to prop me up.  After nearly 5 hours of quick, hard hitting, classic American music I was well and truly toast.  Exhausted and happy.

As the encore closed, with Big Sandy once more on stage helping out with Rock and Roll School, he enthused:  “So what did you think of the 2nd Annual Horton Heat Holiday Hayride?”  Knowing they had a good thing going, Sandy promised we’d see them all again next year for the 3rd edition.  I can’t imagine First Avenue not jumping at the chance to host it.  It was a big, boisterous Wednesday night bunch, undeterred by snow.  I know I’ll be there.