After waiting in the long stretch of black metal, punk, and outlaw country shirts, gimmie caps, and skin ink and whiskey in equal proportions, I arrive at the front of the gilded Grand Ballroom where I’m frisked before entry. Is this a bad omen or should the tightened security make me feel safer? For all the bad-ass attitude I found most people in the entry line, and beforehand at the Rout 101 Bar across the street, to be good-natured if raucous. Like a home-coming with a large, extended, disfunctional hillbilly family.
The opening act Those Poor Bastards played a feverish Southern-gothic welcoming the onslaught of clashing cultures that was taking place in front of them. “See you all in hell” vocalist Lonesome Wyatt called to the crowd as they left the stage. Was that a curse or an invitation to the party to come? I was unsure.
Shelton Hank Williams III bypasses the genteel pageantry manufactured by family-friendly backdrops like the Grand Ole Opry (with which he has a well reported beef) and taps back to the rough breeding dirt-ground that hewed many of the Opry’s roster in order to create his persona and his songs. So it’s no wonder that a Hank III show should so closely resemble a (good-natured) saloon brawl.
9:30 sharp the stage goes dark and a recorded dirge like you might typically find opening a Slayer performance booms. The capacity crowd begins to flail, stomp and scream like some Pentecost tent revival simmering in the Southern heat.
Hank II and the Damn Band (Andy Gibson – Steel Guitar, Dobro, Daniel Mason – Banjo, Adam McOwen – Fiddle, Shawn McWilliams – Drums, Zach Shedd – Upright Bass and Assjack screamer Gary Lindsey was on hand for background, well, screaming) walks on the stage and lurched into “Straight to Hell” knowing just what the crowd wanted. All hell breaks loose and my prime spot 5 feet in front of III’s mic becomes ground zero for a swirling vortex of moshing frenzy. This is a country music show for gods sake! Someone forgotten to tell these poor savages this is not the way people conduct themselves in an ager where Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney are the standard bearers for comtemorary country music.
They came like a 8 second bovine-induced blur – original trad-country rippers like “Thrown out of the Bar,” “Country Heroes,” “Cecil Brown,” “D Ray White,” “Six Pack of Beer.” Hank III name-checked the greats in “Country Heroes” then covered the same with Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” daddy Bocephus’ “Family Tradition,” and his grandaddy’s last prophetic single released during his lifetime “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” The heat was turned up with the thrash ode to performace provocator GG Allin “Punch, Fight, Fuck” (featuring Gary Lindsey on background screaching like a menacing demon shadow.) If you were on the fence about Hank III coming into the show you now found yourself on your feet or on your ass..either way you were having a damn good time.
The genius of 70′s era Willie Nelson was his ability to ignore the Nashville model and, using only his uniques talents and a keen sense of cutural timing, brought together groups that at the time wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room – rednecks and hippies - and to forge himself as a cultural icon and an entire country genre. Hank III hasn’t Willie’s genius for songwriting, but given what I witnessed this night his cutural confederacy is well under way.
Hank III -Nighttime Ramblin’ Man/Ballad of D Ray White = 2/28 – Grand Ballroom, San Francisco, CA