By Mike Finkelstein
On a perfect Friday evening, KKGO radio hosted a triple bill bonanza showcasing the new sound of country music at the Greek Theatre. What transpired was lovingly devoured by one of the most enthusiastic and attractive crowds you could hope to see. It was beautiful. The bands rocked and the crowd rolled all night long. They played like pros, looked current, sported any image they wanted to, and delivered their tunes with conviction and energy. Still, the curious thing about this big event country show was that it looked and sounded so very much like a classic southern rock show.
Brantley Gilbert and his band were top billed and delivered a high-energy set of, let’s face it, southern rock. Their sound was driven by 3 snarling guitars, huge bottom end bass sound, and hard-hitting drums. The crunch and punch in their sound would have to have been inspired by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchett, or the Outlaws. Lynyrd Skynyrd is a worthy model to base a southern rock sound on. But, seriously, LS may have been country personalities, but they were not a country band.
Gilbert’s band had such a curious assortment of looks going on that one had to wonder if it was just an accident. Bassist Jonathan Waggoner and lead guitarist Jess Franklin both had hippie length hair and beards, looking like vintage 70’s musicians (think Allman Brothers Band, 1970). Drummer Ben Sims had a gigantic striped Mohawk. Gilbert himself wore a black ball cap very low, so that it pretty much covered his eyes to make him look a bit sinister. Cowboy hats and Nudie suits are not required under this tent.
Brantley Gilbert hails from Georgia and he let us know several times that he is one proud redneck. He sang with a throaty twang about brawlin’ in “Take It Outside,” partying out in the woods in “My Kind of Party,” taking the law into his own hands in “Read Me My Rights,” running moonshine in “Hell on Wheels,” crazy love in “My Kind of Crazy,” and old fashioned county pride in “Country Must Be Country Wide.”
Jack Ingram and his Beat-Up Ford Band (as in a Ford pickup truck) were second billed and played a winsome set of straight ahead boogie styled southern rock. They too, owed much of how they do what they do to bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band. Ingram’s sound featured a generous amount of walking bass and his two lead guitarists often split themselves into slide and unison lead lines a la the Allman Brothers. In the end, there wasn’t anywhere close to the amount of improvisation and straight blues in the arrangement to continue the comparison with the Allmans. There weren’t a whole lot of rock guitar licks here that we haven’t heard before. And they were definitely not country sounding guitar licks, just straight-ahead rock all the way. But they were played with panache and to be sure the presentation rocked.
Ingram is forty-two years old and performed in a black t-shirt that said “Kristofferson,” in a nod to classic country singer and songwriter Kris Kristofferson. His approach onstage is earnest, appealing, down to earth, and positive. A recurring lyrical theme from him concerned the inevitability of things going wrong in life and how one must “Keep on Keepin’ On.” He also humbly told us the story of how it felt to go from playing s#$&hole bars in Dallas to having a #1 record, “Wherever You Are,” on the country charts. He was clearly blown away by his improbable turn of good fortune. Gotta like this guy, as he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he is clearly all about writing the best music he can.
It’s fun, and rather unavoidable now, to consider what the term country actually refers to. We all know labels can be non-descriptive, limiting, or even pointless. But the point of labeling something is to let other folks know what they’re getting. Country music has, from the beginning, suggested that we will likely hear a sparse, snare-based drumbeat, with very clear, clean guitars, often pedal steel guitars, and words that are entirely audible. Style wise, cowboy hats and western wear in one form or another are part of the package, too. Styles and fashion change like everything does, but classic country music by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or even Red Sovine is unmistakable for its sound. Lyrically country music has always been the place to find great story telling in a song and innumerable descriptive tales of woe and heartache.
Friday’s show satisfied the audience big time, but in the name of perspective, it really didn’t sound like country music. It owed most of its sound to southern rock and AC/DC. The old-school, cornerstone country artists may get lip service from the new country gang but little to none of that was musically apparent on Saturday. Not that it matters. Clearly the audience identifies with country style and attitude. The girl sitting next to me mentioned that the new country music is more wholesome and likable than what rock has become. I get it, too – many rock ‘n rollers are so over the top in image and their crazy lifestyles that it turns a lot of people off. In the rock arena we have old rockers still touring and young rockers who come across as too extreme and too dysfunctional to want to listen to. It doesn’t speak to young people like it used to.
During the 90’s many people must have begun wondering, “Can we just rock without all the distraction? “ How about we just rebuild classic rock from the ground up and then call it something else? If we build it the people will come.
The new country is simply classic rock, cleaned up quite a bit, and marketed squarely to young people as “country.” But the name “country” has been taken for years because it refers to something much different, and to market rock ‘n roll music as country music is not unlike the emperor’s new clothes. Face it folks, it’s still rock ‘n roll, and we still like it. But it’s really southern rock played by country folks.
When you have an audience full of hot young women in boots and miniskirts singing along with the music, they have bought in. So, the young men will surely follow and your prospects are very good. Thirty years ago, young ladies were doing the same thing…at an Aerosmith or Cheap Trick show. It’s all good, just call it what it is.
Rachel Farley opened the show to a good reception with an upbeat set of, yes, southern-sounding rock (although hers was the only one of the three to use keyboards). Was it really any wonder that her lead guitarist stuck the guitar solo of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” into her last number? No, not at all. Farley is only eighteen, and an energetic performer who can deliver the power vocals… so the future looks mighty bright for her.
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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.