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Two Hanks in Three: Hank Williams III. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Unsafe at Any Age
By Bill Ketzer

Hank Williams III, Porter Hall
Saratoga Winners, June 4

They all walked past me as I sat on the weathered floorboards of Winners’ wrap-around porch, chewing gum, making the lonely little smacking noises, the exhale through raw, bloody nostrils while chewing way too much at once. Guys in coveralls, girls in NASCAR shirts, cowboys, greasers, punks, dorks, bikers, metalheads. This was either going to smoke or get real ugly, and I was ready for that. Hank was gonna do a country set and a metal set. I was ready for that. But once inside, I was presented with a spectacle that no one could possibly have predicted: In front of the sound board, the venue had set up several rows of red chairs for . . . the senior citizens. As my mate smirked and made toward the bar, I went over to a bouncer.

“How long have they been here?” I asked.

“Since about six,” he said. I fished out my cell phone and looked at the time. It was 9 PM on the dot, and the opener hadn’t even gone on yet. The ad said doors were at 7:30. Those poor bastards. There were clean-cut elderly couples with matching Stetsons, gents with golf shirts stretched over their big bellies, wives with windbreakers and tennis shoes. They looked slightly confused (in an anticipatory kind of way), cameras dangling around their necks.

“You think they read up on this guy?” I replied as one of them ducked past me with her pill caddy and two cups of water.

“I hope so, dude. I hope so.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off them. It was a bad sign when Porter Hall took the stage with their earnest, stripped-down lesson in true country, and the seniors began to cup hands over ears. Even by country standards the music wasn’t loud. Porter Hall’s sound was a mostly honest, Opry-style mixed bag until for some reason they turned into a stoner rock band at the end of the set, their doe-eyed blondie with the weird black leggings left holding her acoustic with nothing to do but look like she meant it. During one final pleasant little ditty called “Whiskey Whore,” two of the elderly folk, both wearing blue mesh baseball caps riding tall on their heads, actually rose and two-stepped. You can’t buy this stuff in stores. The punkers, the Hessians, they all egged them on as they swirled, as if oblivious to the dank troth in which they swam.

Then came Hank III. Williams said in a recent KNAC interview that he’s “chosen the path of destruction,” and there was little doubt that the man has at least that much of his granddaddy in him. He looks a lot like an anorexic Ted Nugent, only without the mouth you want to plug full of explosives, and from the first galloping acoustic lead-in it was like watching a horse race. A big, evil, two-hour horse race. He simply refused to end it, pacing the stage like a caged dingo with full sleeves of ink and dude-ranch boots in a roiling, pustulating square dance for the modern satanic lifestyle. He seems to have hired an actual mutant on the stand-up bass, straight out of Dawn of the Dead, who leered with mouth gaped wide in a silent scream, effluent glistening on his tiny square teeth. He leaned over the crowd and beat that hollow body like it was the ass end of a centaur and he was its tempestuous, adulterated jockey, riding out of hell, having spent his tour-bus hours chewing spent uranium rods.

Williams kept his eye trained on the audience, always looking for that stray bottle as his head bobbed like a spring-loaded voodoo doll, his crumpled cowboy hat precariously shifting on his head as if it too were in the race. With almost nothing but a “Thank ya much!” between songs, Hank flashed the devil horns often and spewed forth soliloquy after soliloquy about booze (“Nighttime Ramblin Man,” “Mississippi Mud”), heartbreak (“Down in a One Horse Town”) the shitty state of commercial country (“Dick in Dixie,” “Texasee”) and all else that was genteel yet ill-refined as was once acceptable in the state of honky-tonk.

I glanced back at our seniors after four songs, who continued to plug their ears and shoot each other looks typically made when having second thoughts while trapped on a nauseating theme-park ride. The boys were loud, Hank’s hollow-body not content to be relegated to the instrument’s normal diminutive role. It was wielded like he took day lessons from Gary Holt of Exodus, but it buoyed the thick waves of steel guitar and withstood the locomotion of the snare drum like it was punch and pie. He spat. He sang the long notes of “I Don’t Know” and “Cecil Brown” through gritted teeth. He burned with the intensity of a dozen fighting men. He could glow in the dark at will, I bet. And it got louder. I watched the soundman ease up into the sliders more than a few times, taking his guilty pleasures when he could. It was like a gas tanker shifting gears after every big hill.

The old folks began to leave. A few disillusioned metalheads appeared to be flipping Three off at about that time, perhaps having hoped for something more along the lines of Superjoint Ritual, his metal band with Pantera/Down frontman Phil Anselmo.

“Oh, is that where your finger was this whole time, up your momma’s ass?” he asked. “I don’t care if you like me or the things I do, people, so go right ahead.”

At the hour-and-a-half mark, he started doing covers, which is more typical in old Opry more than anywhere, really. It’s like you’re spreading the word. We got Bocephus, Hank Sr., David Allan Coe, Jerry Lee Lewis and an arsonist’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.” At the end, the drunken mishmash of boiled, rotten humanity in front were stirred into berserk mode as he delivered a few cool samples of his Hellbilly project. I retired to the back of the venue to take it all in, and to my surprise, I spotted the two-step couple standing by the door, clapping. Clapping and smiling. It was a long night, and it got longer.

“I’m not sure what this is, but I’ve been doin’ it since I was 16 years old, so here goes,” Williams said, letting his hair down (literally) after a 15-minute break. Yep, out came Three with Assjack, sporting totally new personnel (save the Romulan bassist), and they wrecked the joint for another hour. I’ll be frank: Not really my choice for firepower. It was interesting, but it was that strange sort of heavy dirge metal that eschews any continuity, the crushing riffage just mashed together and seared shut with decapitating screams. Stupendous double-bass runs were just sort of thrown in randomly, serving little purpose for the songs. It didn’t seem like there was half as much care put into this project. But whatever. As the man said, he doesn’t care if I like it or not. Maybe I should buy a Stetson.

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