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Old fires burning: Tichy and Kirchen at the Linda.

Two of a Kind

By Erik Hage

John Tichy and Bill Kirchen

The Linda, Dec. 6


As I watched John Tichy sing Buck Owens’ “Crying Time” at the Linda last Saturday night, a quote from Ray Charles came to mind: “You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing . . . the same thing, man.” Charles was of course talking about country, blues and soul, and he had successfully tested his own hypothesis by making landmark country albums in the early ’60s, when everyone around him told him it would be career suicide. (The High Priest of Soul couldn’t make a country album!) Of course, those recordings went on to become some of his most popular songs and opened him up to a whole new audience.

So if there are three recorded versions of “Crying Time” that you have to hear, it’s Buck Owens’ original, Ray Charles’, and John Tichy’s version recorded live with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in the early 1970s. Listen to all three versions and tell me that this isn’t soul music. (I dare you.) A packed crowd at the Linda did that one better last Saturday night by seeing John Tichy sing “Crying Time” and a whole host of other wonderful renderings live and in person with his old Lost Planet Airmen comrade Bill Kirchen.

For the uninitiated, Tichy and Kirchen made musical history together with Commander Cody in the early 1970s, and if they didn’t achieve the high-profile success of the giant acts of that era, it’s only because the world didn’t know what to do with them. (Only two people in the room Saturday night knew what it was like to open for the Grateful Dead at the Hollywood Bowl in the mid-’70s.) They played boogie, Western swing, Bakersfield country, rockabilly, R&B, blues, rock & roll, you name it. They were known as one of the great live bands of the era, and the hippies alternately loved them and didn’t know what the hell to do with them. Tichy quit in the late ’70s, finished his doctorate and ended up a professor at RPI. Kirchen has continued to burn up that long road, touring, releasing albums and playing guitar for the likes of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Emmylou Harris.

On this night, the two—outfitted in natty Western shirts—tore into the past, but also displayed a vitality that was every bit now and here. There might have been some oaken edges to the older voices, but that made it even sweeter and more soulful. Tichy showed that he still had a remarkable sense of feel for classic country and gospel. He introduced the old Airmen standard “Family Bible” (Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard’s fingerprints have been all over this country-gospel tune) by remembering how the song “threw the hippies a curve ball.” (Legend has it that an early Commander Cody drummer quit in the middle of the song.) Tommy Collins’ “High on a Hilltop” (again popularized by Haggard) showed Tichy in similarly heartbreaking and soulful form.

It wasn’t all about the heartbreak, though, as Kirchen ripped some of his trademark dieselbilly licks, hammering out twang on the low strings. Kirchen’s newer numbers fit right alongside the classic fare, with “Get a Little Goner” occupying that familiar upbeat Bakersfield zone. Kirchen also showed himself to be in fine throat all evening, particularly on the Cody classic “Seeds and Stems Again Blues” (which the hippies obviously dug back in the day). The two got many assists from Mark Gamsjager, head of local rockabilly kingpins (and spearheader of this particular event), including some great lead chatter on the ironic cigarette paean “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).” Besides a smattering of holiday songs, other highlights included a driving, rollicking “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” (local steel player Rick Morse pointed out to me that the kids probably know the Son Volt version better than the Commander Cody take) and a version of “Milk Cow Blues” that pulled all hands on deck for a vocal contribution, including the excellent Bill Kirchen rhythm section of drummer Jack O’Dell and Keith Grimes.

It was quite simply great to see these two performing together in top form, and it was one of the most satisfying concerts of the year in that the audience was led through so many shades and colors, from burning and upbeat to hunkered-down and soulful. There’s a certain (and simultaneous) affinity and contrast between the two old colleagues that is their synergy. It’s there in the singing, and it’s even there in the guitar leads, with Kirchen’s powerful Telecaster twang rubbing up against Tichy’s spitfire, raw and nasty Chuck Berry stabs on the Strat. Let’s hope this happens again soon.

Holiday Soul

The Aaron Neville Quintet featuring Charles Neville

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass., Nov. 28

Since this was listed as a Christmas show, I was mighty worried that Aaron would be wearing a red tousled hat and shaking jingle bells while riding a sleigh back and forth with fake snow falling while soulless session musicians and an out-of-tune children’s chorus vamped on “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Not to worry; this was an Aaron-centric Neville Brothers show without Cyril and Art, and with some Christmas songs thrown in. It was loose, it was funky, and it was a blast. Aaron was wearing his Christmas finest, the tight denim vest over the tight black T-shirt, the tight jeans, the boots; with his cinder-block physique, tats, brim, and laconic demeanor, he is still, at 69, the very embodiment of badass. And then he starts to sing.

This show went right down the middle of the road, starting with a weird thing where the band riffed and Neville sang the first line of various ’50s-’60s songs, not a medley, exactly, but close enough for a little discomfort. The set relied mostly on covers, reliable crowd-pleasing warhorses like “Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” “Crazy Love,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Everybody Plays the Fool.” Safe, sure, but oh so tasty. Christmas songs dropped in and out, clearly unrehearsed, as everybody was glued to their sheet music on this first date of the Christmas tour. For some reason, this wasn’t the least bit offensive; it sounded great, Aaron was singing his ass off, Charles Neville, on sax, was laughing his ass off. And besides first, who exactly is going to tell Aaron Neville he needs to rehearse? Me? Look at me, man! Wrong!!! And besides second, his original holiday tune, the childlike “A Christmas Prayer,” was charming, and his soulful “O Holy Night” was devastating.

He even played some country tunes, passionately aping George Jones on “The Grand Tour” while his band, all Neville Brothers sidemen, played with that high-elbowed stiffness soul guys sometimes get when they have to dumb down to country music. Aaron was killin’; the band got through it.

Then the hammer came down, with a torrid jamming-down “Yellow Moon,” Aaron’s 1966 No. 1 hit “Tell It Like It Is,” and a roof-raising “Amazing Grace.” And just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any heavier, the show ended with a song Aaron recorded for Stay Awake, the brilliant 1988 collection of Disney movie songs: “The Mickey Mouse Club March.” It was time to say goodbye.

—Paul Rapp

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