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Sing you sinners: Angry Johnny and the Killbillies. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

The 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 stage.

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.

Raising the Bar

Michael Brecker
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 and practice?”

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.

—Jeff Waggoner

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