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Flame on: Reverend Horton Heat at Saratoga Winners. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.

Psychobilly, Qu’est-ce que c’est?
By Kirsten Ferguson

Reverend Horton Heat,
The Legendary Shack Shakers
Saratoga Winners, May 9

Reverend Horton Heat may not have invented “psychobilly,” the campy marriage of retro rockabilly, garage-punk and irreverent kitsch that was best personified by the Cramps. But the Heat provided the subgenre with its theme song when Sub Pop released the Texas trio’s “Psychobilly Freakout” single in 1990. Living up to the promise of its tantalizing title, the song featured the crazed guitar riffs of Jim Heath (aka the Reverend) and his manic, the-devil-has-possessed-my-soul vocals: “I’ll tell you what it is! It’s some kinda Texas psychobilly freakout, that’s what it is!”

In the decade (plus change) since, Reverend Horton Heat have veered occasionally from their psychobilly roots to dabble in less raucous musical styles, from the cocktail lounge of 1996’s It’s Martini Time to the swing boogie of 2000’s Spend a Night in the Box. Many would argue that Reverend Horton Heat have been on a steady downward slide, recording-wise, since releasing three great albums in the early ’90s (Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em, The Full Custom Gospel Sounds and Liquor in Front). Live, however, the band still have considerable firepower, given the combustible energy between Heath’s fierce guitar playing and bassist Jimbo Wallace’s burly thwacking.

At Saratoga Winners last Friday night, the Heat played virtually nonstop for nearly two hours, delving into their extensive back catalog of songs about booze, cars and mean women. Dressed in a red tuxedo jacket with blue flames shooting up the arms, his graying hair slicked back into a sharp widow’s peak, Heath was still cultivating that demonic preacher look (hey, if your style works, stick with it). Wallace is the workingman of the group: A gas-station greaser in a sleeveless shirt, he dangled a cigarette from his lips as he walloped his upright bass. In the background, drummer Scott Churilla endlessly twirled his sticks like a gunslinger while keeping time.

After opening with a couple of hot-rod songs from their latest release, Lucky 7, the Heat reached back to Liquor in Front for a series of revved-up classics: “Baddest of the Bad,” “Five-O Ford” and “I Can’t Surf,” the latter of which set off a minor mosh pit. (Soon thereafter, club bouncers tossed a couple of moshers out the front door in a by-the-seat-of-their-pants way that I thought only happened in movies.) A string of oldies followed, including “Marijuana,” a mainly instrumental tune that Heath punctuated by making inhaling sounds into the microphone, and “400 Bucks,” one of several Heat songs that equates romantic breakup solely with the loss of possessions (“I want my 400 dollars and I want it right now!”). Although the show lost some momentum as the band flitted through genres at the end of the set (a country song, then a swing song, then a Latin song, etc.), the closing numbers—“Bales of Cocaine,” “The Devil’s Chasing Me” and “Where in the World Did You Go With My Toothbrush”—were quintessential Heat.

“Ladies and gentlemen, whores and whoremongers, we’re here to rock your asses off,” announced Col. J.D. Wilkes, singer for the Legendary Shack Shakers, a Nashville four-piece who have firmly planted the “psycho” back in psychobilly. The redheaded, shirtless Wilkes—part greaser, part redneck skeeter—may have looked crazy in a Happy Days-meets-Appalachia sort of way. But he wasn’t lying. With demonic-sounding harmonica and distorted CB-radio vocal effects, the band’s set of backwoods “murder boogie”—a little bit George Jones, a little bit ZZ Top—did rock our asses off. All the while, the volatile Wilkes practiced the art of crowd baiting. Unzipping his pants and sprinkling his pubic hair onto the crowd was relatively harmless (and original), but when the cagey singer climbed a rafter above the stage and unfurled a pair of nunchucks, I thought we had a riot on our hands.

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