you sinners: Angry Johnny and the Killbillies.
Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen
Church of the Angry Mind
By Shawn Stone
Angry Johnny and the Killbillies, City Limits, Michael Eck
with Jackinany, Furnature Music
Valentine’s, April 5
It was another evening of Brand New Country at Ye Old Valentine’s.
You could tell right away, because the “Brand New Country”
banner—bearing the silhouette of a fellow who looks an awful
lot like Abe Lincoln but is probably some musical icon I should
recognize and don’t—was hanging up at the back of the downstairs
This informal series, organized by Jeff Burger, emcee of WRPI-FM’s
Sunday Morning Coming Down, brings together musicians
whose work falls somewhere on the country & western
continuum. Last time around, the lineup included the sweet-sounding
alt-country of Coal Palace Kings and the gospel-influenced
songcraft of Hayseed. This night, with Angry Johnny and the
Killbillies on the bill, the mood was noticeably darker.
Angry Johnny and the aforementioned Killbillies are from Easthampton,
Mass., a town they lovingly call “Killville.” Killville, we
are made to understand, is a world away from what the tourist
bureau likes to call the “cultural Berkshires,” or the comfortable
college confines of nearby Amherst or Northampton—all the
songs are about Killville’s residents and their lovin’ and
sinnin’ and dyin’.
It’s a place where the lonely, treacherously curvy state highway
through town claims the lost and doomed (“202,” which bore
a passing resemblance to Love’s “Between Clark and Hillsdale”);
where a simple grocery-store holdup ends in an orgy of blood
and betrayal (“Frank”); where if a girl is well-known enough
to be enshrined in song, she’s too evil to live (“Jezebel”).
Angry Johnny’s voice was angry indeed: rough-hewn and thick
with the weight of sin. Like a black-hatted preacher whose
intimate knowledge of sin was earned through personal experience,
Johnny’s between-song patter was loaded with gloomy references
to the almighty.
The band sounded angry. Whether ripping through apocalyptic
tales of death or zipping through lighter, punkabilly numbers
(“Disposable Boy,” “Funny Thing About Heroes”), the Killbillies
didn’t hold back. Their arrangements were novel, too: Who
ever heard of playing electric-guitar leads on a mandolin,
and making it not only credible but exciting?
City Limits ventured down from the Adirondacks and provided
a bracing shot of classic country & western—not “alt”
and definitely not the contemporary variant. This quartet
were the best kind of cover band. There were no bad song choices.
There wasn’t an ounce of irony in their presentation. They
treated the pleasing cheese (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to
Town”) with the same respect as the genuinely classy songs
(“He Stopped Loving Her Today”); in giving each their due,
the band avoided nostalgia and allowed us to enjoy the songs
on their own merits. City Limits also remembered that “western”
used to be as important a part of the music as “country,”
and their relaxed swing managed to coax a few couples out
on the dance floor.
City Limits received the most enthusiastic response of the
evening. Arguably, they deserved it. After all, with the top
country acts busy covering Stevie Nicks and the Eagles, a
cover band using traditional instrumentation on classic George
Jones songs seemed radical—even punk.
Michael Eck opened the show with his heartfelt Americana.
Backed by Jackinany, Eck performed songs from his recent Small
Town Blues album, introduced a new tune—the more bitter
than bittersweet “Girl I Used to Know”—and sang a jovial version
of Ronnie Lane’s “Ooh-La-La.” The program ended with New York
City’s Furnature Music. Judging from their first few songs—after
four hours, I had to pack it in—they were the odd band out.
Their dark, minor-key pop songs didn’t seem country at all,
but were swell nonetheless.
The Van Dyck, March 27
Practially unnoticed over the din of dribbling basketballs,
one of the jazz world’s major talents arrived under the radar
at the Van Dyck for a one-night gig on March 27. It was the
brilliant tenor saxophonist Micheal Brecker performing with
his new traveling quartet, featuring three richly gifted young
musicians: guitarist-composer Adam Rogers, drummer Bill Stewart
and Copenhagen-born Chris Minh-Doky on acoustic bass.
What all four have in common is mastery of a range of genres
from classical to jazz to funk and pop. Brecker has played
with James Taylor, Paul Simon and Yoko Ono. Stewart has kept
rhythm for funkmaster Maceo Parker and Minh-Doky has won awards
from the Royal Danish Conservatory for Classical Music for
his work on piano. Rogers, as well, has done everything from
klezmer to gigs with Elvis Costello.
Brecker’s eclectic style has bolstered his reputation among
hard-core jazz aficianodos: It seemed as if half the Van Dyck
audience in the second set that Thursday night were local
saxophone players. Indeed, it’s Brecker’s mastery of so many
styles that makes him an improvisor with so much to say.
While the tenorist doesn’t limit himself to jazz, it’s clear
that his first love is straight-ahead jazz and the kind of
post-Coltrane modal music played Thursday.
Each of the two sets the quartet played shared as a centerpiece
the hair-raising ballad “The Cost of Living” by the late pianist-composer
Don Grolnick. Its languid pace set off the torrid tempos of
the other songs on the playlist.
Leading off the second set was the altered blues “Madame Toulouse”
by Brecker, followed by gutarist Rogers’ “Phrygia,” a one-chord
vamp in which the audience saw Brecker at his multiphonic,
Coltrane-like best. “Phyrgia” was followed by Coltrane’s own
“Giant Steps,” done in a new arrangement by Brecker. Then
came “The Cost of Living,” and the evening ended with the
Pat Metheny composition “Song for Bilbao.”
After the show, one musician in the audience walked up to
a local baritone sax player also on hand for the show and
asked, “Did it make you want to quit, or go home right away
At least one saxophonist said that it made him want to play,
and he and his quartet left the Van Dyck at midnight to go
do some early morning woodshedding.