The scent of pomade at the 9:30 Club on Saturday was almost as thick as the B.O. a week earlier. That time, I danced -- fingers always pointed down -- with the hippies at the North Mississippi Allstars show. This time, I hung with greasers in balcony, watching young punks mosh about below at the Reverend Horton Heat concert.
I've seen Horton Heat a few times, about every three years, so I was more interested in seeing opener The Legendary Shack*Shakers. They cover the same basic rockabilly territory as Horton Heat, but they are looser and confident rolling out a cool groove from time to time. They cross a few more genres, too, stirring hoedowns, polka and Klezmer into the mix. But the main draw of this attraction is Nashville's best frontman, Colonel J.D. Wilkes. His onstage antics liven up the crowd and keep the band loose. Avoiding injury was one reason to roost in the balcony; avoiding Wilkes' loogies, frequently launched 10 feet into the are and 15 feet into the audience, was another. Wilkes danced frantically about the stage, threw gear at his bandmates, and flipped his harmonica up into the air over and over again. A few songs into the Shack*Shakers set, he ripped off his shirt to reveal his skin and bones. Imagine what the banjo-playing boy from "Deliverance" might look like as an adult. He also played the harmonica with abandon and sneered, shrieked and mumbled into the mike -- usually the muffled harmonica mike, Howlin' Wolf style -- and sometimes just pushed the harmonica mike on his neck, creating a haunting vocal echo. With him leading the way, the Shack*Shakers played a raucous set. Like Horton Heat, they are pedal to the floor, but with Horton Heat, you feel confident that you're gonna stay on the road. The Shack*Shakers could fall apart at any moment, it seems, and tumble off a cliff. It's that playing-on-the-edge style that I thought would steal the spotlight from Horton Heat.
But I was wrong. Though the Reverend Horton Heat has been treading the same path for about two decades, they remain an engaging, powerful live act. Playing both the lead and rhythm on his guitar, the Reverend himself (James Heath) make this trio sound like a quartet. They are loud and fast and tight, and Saturday's show was one of the best performances I've seen them offer. Horton may look his age, but he doesn't sound it. They opened with a surf instrumental, then stormed into "Baddest of the Bad" from 1997's "Liquor In The Front." Horton encouraged the audience to shout out their requests and obliged them with the same fan favorites you always hear at these shows, including many songs from 1993's "The Full Custom Gospel Sounds," which is probably Horton Heat's only essential album. The crowd lit up for "Wiggle Stick" early in the set. That was followed by the mosh-pit approved "400 Bucks," which I had never heard played with such power and punk energy. The rootsy, and cheeky, "Bales Of Cocaine" got the crowd giggly and excited, and while its Beverly Rockabillies tale of a farmer stumbling into a drug empire fortune is a cheap joke, it's still funny 13 years later. For me though, the biggest smile was "Nurture My Pig!" with its alternating slick lounge music and bombastic mid-'90s alt rock.
Despite the request for requests, Horton joked that he's written hundreds of songs while killing billions of brain cells, making it hard to remember all of them, but he did reach back to play "Bad Reputation" from their debut album. I could have done without "It's Martini Time" from their swing craze influenced album of the same name, and many of the newer songs sound like retreads of their earlier music, but I was surprised at how taken I was with their blistering performance of "Galaxy 500" from 2002's "Lucky 7." The whole crowd got into the "J-I-M-B-O" sing-along from "Jimbo Song," one of several Horton Heat songs featuring their bass-standing wildman, Jimbo Wallace -- yes, he did balance himself on his upright; no, he didn't play it while standing on it -- as the lead character. And the band paid homage to some heroes as well, with covers of Bill Haley's "Rock The Joint" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Listening to their heavy treatment of the latter, you can hear where songs like "Bales Of Cocaine" came from.
So they aren't the first band to find inspiration in Sun Records artists and they aren't the first band to mix that sound with punk, but that doesn't make them retro. More than a decade ago, Horton Heat updated rockabilly for the alternative rock era (it hadn't been updated since the CBGB's era of the late '70s), and in doing so, the band found something new. While they haven't done anything to update it recently, they are still the baddest live rockabilly act around -- still badder than those renegade Shack*Shakers.