Live Review: Shooter Jennings
Cancun Cantina West is a country disco in Hagerstown with black lights and tanned twentysomethings twirling on the bar tops. The waitresses walking around with whistles and trays of shots reminded me of Tijuana, that other southern mecca of sun and sleaze. I frequented TJ during my brief stint as a San Diegan, but precious few memories remain besides the sharp flutter of a whistle signaling you to tip your head back and guzzle tequila and After Shock. I was only vaguely aware of Cantina before this show, seeing it listed once on David Allan Coe’s tour schedule. I missed that show, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to hear the great Richie Albright in a relatively small bar. Albright is a legendary drummer for a reason, he hits harder than Dale Crover and makes an 808 seem imprecise. On top of that he played on and produced some of Waylon Jennings best known work.
This show was a tribute of sorts to the elder Jennings, featuring his son, Shooter Jennings, and members of Waylon’s old band The Waylors, now formed as Waymore’s Outlaws. The Outlaws have their own singer, Tommy Townsend, who was “mentored by Waylon in his youth,” according to his bio on the band’s website. Outlaw Country was a marketing scheme for Waylon’s (and others) insistence on artistic freedom, namely to use Albright and the rest of his live band as his recording band, something unheard of in Nashville at the time. Waylon himself never took the outlaw schtick seriously, and mocked the label and the trouble it caused him in his song “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?”. The answer to that question is yes, and today’s crop of self proclaimed outlaws have nothing if not artistic freedom, but do little with it aside from wing flapping and low-grade self-mythologizing.
Openers Jive Mother Mary played some kind of mountain mash, the most recognizable element being southern jam rock. I imagined them being born recently on a ratty blanket at Floyd Fest. In between sets, songs that only a sheltered music snob would need Shazam to identify blared over the loudspeakers (I had to Google, “You’re crazy but I like the way you fuck me,” and “I want a brand new house on an episode of Cribs”).
As a bandleader, Townsend is a slacker. Having Albright and Jerry Bridges (bass) behind you is like commanding an army tank, but Townsend drove it like a Dodge Neon. There was little in terms of improv, and the lack of dynamism across songs made it sound like Townsend was singing on top of a backing track. I was waiting for Fred Newell’s pedal steel to be unleashed, but it never really happened. He was restrained by Townsend’s constant playing and singing, except towards the end of the show when Newell played a nice guitar solo on Roger Miller’s “River In The Rain.” Townsend could improve by learning three words and saying them often, “Pick it Newell.” Waylon usually had a mischievous grin on his face when he performed, and his confidence as a bandleader allowed space to take risks with interplay between the band. The crowd at Cantina didn’t seem to mind any of this though, and a sea of Coors Lights, Bud Lights, and Budweisers went up from the balcony to the almost packed floor when Townsend ordered them to holler and take a swaller before launching into “Honky Tonk Heroes.”
Around 10:30 Shooter Jennings took the wheel and Waymore’s Outlaws stuck around to back him up. Shooter has a soft growl well suited for southern rock and they ran through a number of Waylon tunes, Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose,” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” all in that fashion. The band then left the stage to Shooter alone, and he played an electric and inspired version of Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” then rushed through a slew of hard strumming originals. The crowd responded best to two sing-alongs from his latest album, The Other Life: “Outlaw You” and “The Gunslinger.” “Don’t call me an outlaw/I’m a motherfucking gunslinger/You wanna run your mouth all day long/You better keep your eye on my motherfucking trigger finger.” Both songs are heavy on the rap-singing and macheezmo you have come to expect from mainstream country schlock. I don’t doubt Shooter’s sincerity, but the adoption of the rap feud mentality into country music is horrendous. The band came back out for the encore, a rollicking version of “Fourth of July” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It was the perfect nightcap. (Now go pick up that ‘Nashville Rebel’ DVD and watch Cowboy Jack Clement dance in the background as a music god helms one of the best live bands in history. “Pick it Moon!”)