On Friday, I shot my first show at The Anthem, one of the many new venues that has opened in the past couple of years in Washington, D.C. And the show — Lucinda Williams co-headlining with the Drive-By Truckers — was terrific.
The photos were published in Americana Highways, and a review was written by another person. While I enjoy the writing, it’s fun sometimes just to play with my camera.
The opener for the show was Erika Wennerstrom, a singer with the Heartless Bastards who is touring behind her new solo album, "Sweet Unknown." Enjoyed her set as well.
Richard Lloyd, one of the founders of the seminal punk group Television and a musician known for his studio work with Matthew Sweet (among others), performed a solo show before a too-small crowd Sunday at City Winery. Lloyd also read excerpts from his book, Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s And Five Decades Of Rock And Roll: The Memoirs Of An Alchemical Guitarist, and talked to audience members about his process.
All in all, a fascinating evening. Photos were for ParkLifeDC.
Touring musicians with multiple albums always face a dilemma: How much should you play of the new stuff vs. the songs the audiences expects to hear. In many cases, the biggest hits are confined to the last two to three songs or the encores. Some groups have such deep catalogues that it’s impossible to hear everything you want in a single show. And some just eschew the hits all together, not caring if they alienate the audience.
Each move is risky. If the Rolling Stones play anything recorded post 1981, for example, you can bet many in the audience will be clogging the bathrooms or standing in the beer line while waiting for the umpteenth version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” When Steve Earle hears calls for “Copperhead Road,” he gives the audience a look that could cut glass.
Neko Case has found a great balance and has stuck with it during a long tour for her latest album, 2018’s Hell-On. Working with a six-piece ensemble, Case has a 24-song setlist that mixes her best-loved material with the songs from the new album, which may be her strongest yet.
Case played 10 of Hell-On’s 12 songs during two shows recently at the Lincoln Theater. Recorded abroad with her usual variety of musicians and influences, the album captures Case’s trademark mix of sophisticated and at times ethereal lyrics with influences of rock, pop, alt-country, punk and rockabilly.
After opener Margaret Glaspy ended her set, Case opened with “Pitch or Honey,” which ironically closes out the new album. She came back with “Last Lion of Albion,” the first single that explores ecofeminist themes, then shifted to “Deep Red Bells” from Blacklisted. That was followed by “City Swans” from the winner of 2013’s longest album title — The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.
2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood took center stage for two songs, “Margaret vs. Pauline” and the sublime “Maybe Sparrow” before Case returned to the warm and country-tinged “Calling Cards” from The Worse Things Get.
At this point, Case takes a risk with five consecutive songs from Hell-On: the beautiful “Winnie,” the stomping good time of “Bad Luck,” “Cure of the I-5 Corridor,” “Gumball Blue,” and “Oracle of the Maritimes.” She then threw in two covers — Catherine Irwin’s “Hex,” and Sarah Vaughan’s “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” that Case recorded on Blacklisted.
Case’s new material is so strong that the audience sat rapt during the Hell-On songs, but — no surprise — the biggest cheers were for some of the older material. “Hold On, Hold On,” the third of four songs from Fox Confessor, and “Man,” from The Worse Things Get, closed the show on a high note before a five-song encore.
That encore started with the title track from the new album and ended with a cover of the Nervous Eaters’ “Loretta” and “Ragtime” from The Worse Things Get. It helped that her band was both versatile, and after touring for the better part of a year, in sync throughout.
That band is one reason I hope someone is chronicling this tour and that we can get a live release from Case. While the atmospheric qualities of her songs come through loud and clear in the studio, the new material especially takes on a different quality in a live setting. If you get a chance to see this tour when it comes to your town, don’t miss it.
• Richard Lloyd of Television: “What is country music? It’s always driven by heartache. Rock & roll on the other hand, often exudes a kind of celebration of rebelliousness and debauchery. But what comes after debauchery? Agony. You can’t have one without the other. They call that big angel, big devil where I come from.”
• Hayes Carll: “I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it. ... I understand a lot of people look to music as an escape, and it can be really upsetting when it feels like that’s disrupted. But I have a really low tolerance for the people who say ‘shut up and sing.’ It minimizes everybody’s voice. We are citizens, and we are artists.”
• Jason Isbell: "Politics is not a football game, and I think that’s where a lot of Americans make a mistake: They root for one side, and when that side wins, they rub it in your face, and when that side loses, they get really pissed off and saying the game was rigged. It’s not a sporting event. It’s real. Whoever wins, we all have to deal with it, for better or for worse. I did what I could so I was able to sleep at night, no matter who won."
• And finally, the late great Joe Strummer: “I used to be just another guy on the street, but now I’m just another LP on the shelf.”
Grammy nominated singer Ashley McBryde played a terrific concert Wednesday night at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. The 35-year-old singer, whose debut album “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is up for Best Country Album next month, originally was scheduled to perform at the venue in September but the show was rescheduled due to Hurricane Florence.
The subsequent months have seen McBryde’s album — the title song is based on how she felt after being told to give up her dreams by a high school algebra teacher — be profiled on CBS This Morning and land on a who’s who of “Best of” lists. Among them: The New York Times, Billboard, Esquire, NPR Music, Paste, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, Town & Country and Variety.
I’m not writing a formal review of this show because it was assigned to an Americana Highways colleague who needed a photographer. But I can tell you this: Ashley McBryde is a star in the making. And chances are you will never see her in a venue as small as The Hamilton again.
Dee White, a 20-year-old singer who has released “Side A” of his debut album “Southern Gentleman,” served as the opener for Ashley McBryde Wednesday night at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. The singer from Slapout, Alabama, named as one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone, is acclaimed for his updated take on classic Countrypolitan music. Side B of “Southern Gentleman” is expected sometime this year.
This review is being posted to the Americana Highways website. For more photos, go to my Concert Photos gallery.
There’s nothing quite like closing out a year with a bunch of heathens in our nation’s Capital. If not a bunch, then at least a band.
The five-member Band of Heathens filled the main room at Hill Country Live on 7th Street and rocked a small but enthusiastic crowd into 2019. The Austin-based group performed songs from their five studio albums as well as the singles “Carry Your Love” and “Dc 9,” which in an alternate universe would be Billboard hits.
Led by Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist, who share lead vocals and write the band’s songs, the five-member group has followed up 2017’s “Duende” with “A Message from the People Revisited,” a song-by-song recording of Ray Charles’ classic 1972 album.
Jurdi and Quist, who formed the band in 2006 with Colin Brooks, have been on a roll since a series of lineup changes left them as the only original Heathens. They are backed ably by Trevor Nealon on keyboards, Scott Davis on bass, and Richard Millsap on drums.
The Band of Heathens’ sound draws comparisons to groups like Little Feat and The Black Crowes, but the best description I’ve heard of their style is “Grateful Dead Americana.” While this is probably true of any Americana fan, I most appreciate bands who have a lack of respect for strict genres. I like that Jurdi’s vocals are more soul and R&B based, while Quist has a more straightforward singer-songwriter style, with some Memphis pop/country/soul added for good measure.
Monday’s show started just before 10:30 and ended with two songs in 2019. Much of the first half of the show was devoted to songs from “Duende,” including “All I’m Asking,” “Sugar Queen,” “Green Grass of California,” and “Last Minute Man.”
“Medicine Man,” “Gris Gris Satchel,” from 2016’s “Top Hat Crown,” were mixed with “Jackson Station” from the group’s 2008 self-titled studio debut. “LA County Blues” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” from 2011’s “One Foot in the Ether,” were also highlights.
The latter song included an extended jam featuring Jurdi solos on both lead guitar and harmonica. It proved to be a strong segue into the group’s “Message” set, where the band covered a series of standards that Charles had made his own almost a half century ago in a musical call for peace and harmony.
Because of history’s tendency to repeat itself, many of the issues Charles’ sang about in 1972 remain sadly relevant today. Still, it took some guts for a white Americana band to remake a known soul classic take by take, in just four days of studio time no less. And for the most part, it works.
On Monday, amid the celebrations and just a mile from the White House, it was almost cathartic to hear songs like “Heaven Help Us All,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” Even “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which felt more like John Denver than Ray Charles, worked.
The mini set done, the band returned to its own catalogue, roaring through “Deep Is Love,” the beautiful ballad “Hurricane,” and the rocking “Trouble Came Early,” which ended just in time for the New Year’s countdown. That was followed by a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and, as the closer, “America the Beautiful.”
With that, the show and another year were in the books. And both were memorable.
For the past several years, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Los Lobos have come east to play a series of multiple night residencies at City Winery, the rapidly expanding venue that added Washington, D.C. to its stable in 2018.
The six-member band arrived in the nation’s Capital on the Friday before Christmas for a two-night stop that followed shows at City Winery locations in Chicago, New York and Boston. Billed as an “Acoustic & Electric Evening,” the show featured different setlists each night as Los Lobos drew from a 45-year catalogue of originals, eclectic covers, and traditional Mexican music.
The first night started almost an hour late, as the group struggled with technical issues during the soundcheck. The trouble with the monitors made for a harried beginning, as vocalist Cesar Rosas noted after the second song.
“We’re playing the music we played when we first started out. I hope you like it,” Rosas said, “It’s our first time to play in the venue. I wish I could hear myself.”
Four of the six members of Los Lobos — Rosas, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo and Conrad Lozano — have been together since the mid 1970s. The quartet started the acoustic set — called “folk music for the hearing impaired” by Rosas — and were soon joined by saxophone player Steve Berlin and drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez.
Despite an occasional buzz in the monitors, the sound issues had no effect on the audience. The band quickly found its groove during the electric set, despite limited interaction with the audience. After opening the set with “La Pistola y el Corazon,” Perez offered the beautiful “Saint Behind the Glass” from Kiko, the band’s most acclaimed — yet unjustly overlooked — 1992 album.
Hidalgo is the band’s de facto lead vocalist, albeit one who also plays accordian, percussion, bass, violin, melodic and banjo, among other instruments. Highlights for me were his versions of “Tin Can Trust,” “Emily,” “The Neighborhood,” and the sublime “Tears of God,” the closer from 1987’s “By the Light of the Moon.”
Rosas took the lead on “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),”and “Chuco’s Cumbia,” from 2006’s “The Town and the City,” a song cycle that focuses on the immigrant experience in America.
Los Lobos is one of the few bands whose covers are almost as interesting as the originals. Perez, who leaves the drumkit behind when the band tours, played lead on three — Johnny Thunders’ “Alone in a Crowd” and Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go” and “La Bamba,”
Thanks to the movie on Valens’ too-short life, the last two helped the band break to a national audience more than 30 years ago. You can’t help but think they could play La Bamba, especially, in their sleep, but the performance was strong and the audience went along for the ride. Much more interesting was “Alone in the Crowd,” a lesser-known cover that showed Los Lobos’ ability to cross genres without blinking.
For an evening that started with glitches, all had been forgotten by the time the band ended with an encore of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.”
Of course, that’s the benefit of being together for more than four decades. What’s remarkable is that Los Lobos shows no signs of decline, even with the core well into their mid 60s. Their voices and playing remain strong. Not fade away, indeed.
“Here you go. Want to try and do something with this?”
John Simsen, my boss at the Texas City Sun, was going through the daily stack of mail when he tossed a Rounder Records/Bullseye Blues press kit onto my desk. He knew I was into music, and opportunities were rare to do much regional or national entertainment coverage. Writing a profile on a musician opening for Bonnie Raitt would be a nice change of pace amid the daily grind of cops, obits and meetings.
I called the press contact and set up a phone interview with Charles Brown, having no idea that I was starting an eight-year friendship with a future member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Chances are you’ve heard Charles’ music, even though it’s been 28 years since that interview and almost two decades since his death. He is responsible for two holiday classics (“Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas”) that are piped through stores and Starbucks in a never-ending loop from Halloween to New Year’s Day.
The stories behind those two songs are fascinating. But then, Charles had a fascinating life. Our interactions, mostly over the phone, were memorable too.
Yesterday, eating lunch with a friend and freelance colleague, Charles’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby” started playing through the restaurant’s speakers. He recorded the song — as have more than 90 others — numerous times from the 1940s to the 1990s and played it at every concert, no matter the time of year.
My favorite version is the one he did with Bonnie Raitt in the midst of his comeback. You can listen below and judge for yourself, but I think you’ll agree: Charles Brown was one of a kind.
When we first talked, in 1990, Brown was in the midst of a comeback that was getting a huge boost from Raitt, whose own comeback had started the year before with the release of the Grammy Award-winning “Nick of Time.”
“I love her,” Brown told me over the phone. “She’s been very good to me.”
By this point, approaching 70, he was nostalgic, grateful, and quick to turn on the charm. He described growing up in Texas City in the 1920s and 1930s, raised by his grandmother, Swannee Simpson, after his mother died when he was 6 months old.
Brown’s grandmother started teaching him church music on the piano when he was 4, pushing him to play more with his left hand than his right. “She liked the deeper sounds you got from your left hand, and said you were taking the easy way out if you spent most of your time on the right side of the piano,” he said. “She’d make me hold my right hand behind my back and play with just my left.”
When Charles was 11, his grandmother took him to “the Rev. Cole’s” Baptist church. Cole, Brown said, was so charismatic that “he had the sisters rolling. They were carrying them out on stretchers.” He also was “jazzing up those spirituals just like the blues, and I was hooked. I wanted to play like that.”
Charles started taking lessons from one of the church members, but his grandmother pushed him to get an education. He graduated in 1942 with a chemistry degree from Prairie View College, worked as a high school teacher for a year, then as a junior chemist at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Ruled ineligible for the draft due to asthma, he moved to California in 1944 and started playing music.
B.B. King, who I was fortunate to interview in 1991, said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician.
“We were all jealous of him because he went to college,” King said. “He had so many more options than the rest of us.”
Within months of moving to Los Angeles, Brown had abandoned chemistry and joined Johnny Moore & The Three Blazers. In 1945, Brown had his first hit song, “Drifting Blues,” which has been covered several times by Eric Clapton. Soon, musicians such as Ray Charles started copping Brown’s mix of jazz and blues.
“I loved and imitated Nat Cole and Charles Brown,” Charles wrote in his 1979 autobiography, Brother Ray. “I had been stealing their licks and singing and playing like them for years. I had my first hit with a Charles Brown-influenced number, `Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand'."
Brown went solo in 1948, signed to Aladdin Records and saw his music shoot up the charts. Between 1949 and 1952, his songs spent 103 weeks on Billboard’s Race Chart, including 29 weeks at No. 1.
“I was living it up,” Brown told me, noting that his next-door neighbor at the time was Billie Holiday. “But things change.”
What changed was the music business, as Charles’ smooth, mellow blues/jazz hybrid fell out of favor with the birth of rock and roll. He continued to record throughout the 1950s and 1960s for multiple labels with limited success. Like many African-American musicians of that era, he was prevented from getting royalties to his songs, or sold off the rights to fuel a ferocious gambling habit.
Although Charles didn’t drink, he loved to gamble. He refused to play piano for Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” album in 1963, noting that he was offered only $75 for the session and “I could make more than that at the track.” Cooke cut the album in four days and featured two of Charles’ songs on it.
Middling gigs and stints as a music teacher and with a janitorial service led Brown to consider quitting the music business by the early 1980s. But a chance encounter with a Steinway piano in one of the houses he was cleaning started his comeback.
“We were working in one of those big houses, and I saw this piano,” Charles told me. “It was a Steinway, and no piano player would turn down a chance to play a Steinway, no matter if you had permission or not. So I sat down and started playing, and the owner of the house found me. She liked what she heard and asked me to play for a party she was having.”
It was at the party, in 1986, that a record executive for a small label asked Brown to return to the studio. The subsequent album, “One More for the Road,” received enough notice to get Brown back on stage, where he struck up a conversation with Raitt at the Blue Note in New York. A longtime fan of Brown’s work, Raitt offered him the opening slot on her tour, which is how we met.
Two hours into our conversation, Brown asked if I was going to the show and offered to leave tickets and a backstage pass for me at will call. Afterward, we met in his dressing room and started talking like we had known each other for a lifetime.
A few minutes into the conversation, someone opened the door and asked if a few people could take a picture. Charles obliged, and into the room walked Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and Jeff Healey.
If I had been chewing gum, I would have swallowed it then and there.
After the picture was taken, Raitt stayed behind and sat in the chair next to me. “Who the hell are you?” she asked, before Charles made a formal introduction and noted I was from his hometown.
“I love this man,” Raitt said. “If more people were like him, there would be no war. He is just filled with love.”
The day before the concert, Raitt had performed “Amazing Grace” with Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s funeral in Dallas. I had snagged the wire photo from work and gave it to Raitt.
She sighed. “That,” she said, “was a day I’ll never forget.”
A few minutes passed and Charles had to change and get on the bus that was taking the tour to its next stop. But before he left, he gave me his home phone number and asked me to give him a call when he got back to California.
“It’s always nice to talk to someone from my hometown,” he said.
For the next eight years, every four to six weeks, Charles and I talked on the phone. He’d tell stories about Texas City and the musicians he’d encountered, ask questions about my work and family, and then cut the conversation when it was time to leave for the track.
I saw him perform twice more in Houston before I moved to North Carolina in 1993 and was thrilled to hear he would be touring with Raitt and Ruth Brown on the “Caravan of Blues” tour in 1995.
We met for dinner in Raleigh, and he regaled me and others at the table with tales of love and marriage and music. He talked about betting on the horses, saying simply, “It’s my hobby.”
On the way back, Charles asked how I was doing. Jill and I had met, but we were both going through divorces and the relationship was not yet on solid ground. I mentioned to Charles that “All My Life,” the title track from the 1990 album that led to our interview, was a perfect summation of my feelings for her. I also mentioned that Jill didn’t fully believe me when I told her of the friendship Charles and I shared.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s do something about that.”
Sitting in the hotel lobby, he proceeded to ask for a piece of paper and a pen, then took 10 minutes to write her a one-page note. The note mentioned what I told him about “All My Life” and ended with “Forget my concern, it’s only real.”
I knew it was.
Flash forward four months. Charles is on the road with his small band, playing in Carrboro. He wants to meet Jill, so we arrive for the soundcheck. I asked him to play “All My Life” for us.
“Can’t do it,” he said, picking at the piano. “Don’t like the introduction.”
That night, at the show, he asked the two of us to stand. He told the audience the basics of our story, and of how I had bugged him to play the song. He then told us to look into each other’s eyes as he sang “All My Life” just for us.
Charles and I continued our long-distance phone conversations. Finally financially stable, he had moved into a one-bedroom unit in a Berkeley senior-citizen housing project.
In 1997, he went to the White House, where he received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next month, he was feted at the end of the San Francisco Jazz Festival by Raitt, Ruth Brown and John Lee Hooker, among others.
In 1998, we talked only two or three times. Jill and I were busy with a toddler and two newborns, and Charles’ health was starting to fade. When the notice came in December 1998 that he had been selected as an “Early Influence” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I tried to call but could not reach him.
In January 1999, just two months before the induction ceremony, Charles died of congestive heart failure at age 76.
Eight years before, during the meeting in his dressing room, I asked Charles if he had ever been recognized in his hometown. He laughed and said no, but “That sure would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
After writing the story and a subsequent column on him, I thought Texas City would find some way to honor one of its most famous residents, but it took 19 years. Today, a bust of Charles hangs in the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center, and he is recognized annually during the city’s Juneteenth celebration.
Charles Brown’s presence is felt every year during the holidays thanks to two classic ballads — “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
The list of artists who’ve covered the songs is a “Who’s Who” in music. “Merry Christmas Baby” has been recorded more than 90 times, by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding and Chuck Berry, to name a few. More than 30 artists have recorded “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Among them: The Eagles, James Brown, Willie Nelson and Bon Jovi.
Released 12 years apart, the origin of both songs is in some dispute. Brown insisted he wrote both, reworking “Merry Christmas Baby” for a friend who needed money for surgery and penning “Please Come Home for Christmas” while being forced to work for a kingpin who ran illegal gambling clubs in Northern Kentucky.
“Merry Christmas Baby” is credited to Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, the leader of the trio that Brown first recorded with in the mid 1940s. Charles plays piano and sings lead on the song but was denied the writing credit he always claimed he deserved.
“Johnny Moore was illiterate,” Brown told me. “He couldn’t sign his name.”
Brown claimed that he reworked Baxter’s lyrics for a song titled “Merry Xmas Baby” as a favor. Richie Dell Thomas, a friend of Brown’s who I met in the 1990s in Houston, said she remembered him working on the song in her apartment in Los Angeles.
“That song is his as much as it anyone else’s,” Thomas said. “Charles doesn’t lie about that stuff.”
In a December 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, writer William Browning reaches the same conclusion, saying, “At a minimum, I think Brown should have received partial credit for writing the song.”
I did not know the origin of “Please Come Home for Christmas” until I read a 2014 Cincinnati Enquirerarticle by Steven Rosen, who notes that Brown spent time working in gambling clubs owned by the notorious Frank “Screw” Andrews from 1959 to 1961.
By this point, Brown’s star had faded — he had not had a hit since 1952 — and he was in heavy debt due to a lifelong gambling habit. He became Andrews’ house pianist, working with fellow singer/pianist Amos Milburn.
In 1960, Syd Nathan of King Records asked Brown if he could “write something as good as ‘Merry Christmas Baby’.” The result was “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Brown’s last hit as part of a split single with Milburn’s “Christmas Comes but Once a Year.” But on the second song, which Brown claimed was a solo effort, King Records musician Gene Rudd receives a co-writing credit.
Had Brown received proper publishing credit for those two songs — and, if we’re being honest, not gambled as much — the residuals would have left him comfortable financially. But, like other artists who saw potential windfalls vanish without a trace, he didn’t get to benefit from his creation.
That’s what the singer-songwriter did, early and often during his solo acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre in west Austin on Wednesday. Bingham, whose first album since 2015’s “Fear and Saturday Night” comes out in February, tested out new material from the forthcoming “American Love Song” and played some of his more familiar work in an intimate setting that is far removed from the larger venues he plays with his full band.
On Wednesday, Bingham was a jovial, salty ringmaster, providing the audience with a somewhat linear, at times slightly scrambled narrative of his difficult upbringing. He apologized on several occasions for the rambling during the two-hour show, but there was no need because the stories were so interesting and entertaining.
The basics of Bingham’s life and career are well known to fans. Born in New Mexico, his parents struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and he lived a largely itinerant childhood. Eventually establishing deep roots in Texas, Bingham scored a record deal in 2007 and then became known nationally when his song “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s “Crazy Heart” won a Grammy and an Academy Award.
Kicking off the show with “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” he moved into “Nothing Holds Me Down,” a bluesy number from the forthcoming album. After a sublime “Dollar a Day,” Bingham said his father told him to “keep a real open mind because a lot of people are going through similar things and hard times, too.” He then launched into “Hard Times,” which features the wordplay of “When it pours it rains,” and told a funny yet sad story about following his father to Laredo.
The funny: Bingham hitched a ride with two girls from Houston who were driving to South Padre Island, where he saw his first concert on the beach. Run-D.M.C. was playing, and two University of Texas football players put the skinny kid on their shoulders so he could see.
“It was badass,” Bingham recalled.
The sad: His friends realized how far Laredo actually was from Houston, so they dropped him at a truck stop so he could hitchhike the rest of the way. A truck driver named Al offered him two pieces of sage advice: If you’re going to hitchhike, get a pocket knife and keep it with you at all times. And, if you’re stuck at a truck stop with nowhere to go, wait for the big rigs to come in and snuggle up to next to one of the tires to keep warm.
Bingham then sang “Long Way from Georgia,” a tribute to Al, and then told how learning how to play a mariachi song on guitar inspired him to play music. The guitar, a gift from his mother, “became my voice and my identity and my soul,” he said as an introduction to the classic mariachi tune “La Malaguena.”
The stories continued. “Sunshine,” about Leonard Peltier, was partially inspired and written after he met a man working as a dime store Indian at Disneyland Paris, where he had flown with a one-way ticket to get a job on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The job didn’t pan out, but the experience provided him with fodder for a song.
At that point, Bingham started sharing more songs from the new album, which has the potential to be his best yet. “Jingle and Go” talks about playing for tips. “Lover Girl,” the story of Bingham meeting and wooing his wife of almost 10 years, was illustrated with a tale about convincing her to drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up his belongings, which turned out to be a box of records his uncle had given him.
The strongest new songs played came toward the end of the evening. One is “Wolves,” which he wrote for students who have spoken out against gun violence in schools. He said the response of adults to student activism in the wake of last year’s shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School “takes me back a little bit” to his own feelings of abandonment by adults, noting that is “at a time when kids need someone to listen to them the most.”
The second was “America,” a simple, emotional state-of-the-state ballad that likely will be controversial when it is released. The song asks a number of questions (“Can we see what we’ve become?”) and is replete with vivid imagery (“A bullet is only dressed in blood”) that likely will not be played on conservative country radio.
That’s not what Bingham cares about though. Unlike most performers, he does not perform his biggest “hit” at the end of every show. He played “The Weary Kind” during the previous evening’s encore but left the stage without mentioning it on Wednesday.
That felt somewhat ironic, given his focus on the past, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They cared more about the stories and the other “damn good songs” that he has in his canon. For two hours, he delivered plenty of those. And all with a wink and a smile.