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Johnny Hickman / The Hackensaw Boys (USA)

11/10/05
Ab Club, Brussels (B)

Hee Haw, Pee Paw

I didn't expect a support act (the Hackensaw Boys' reputation for bluegrass marathons has reached Brussels in the meantime), so it was definitely a pleasant surprise when Johnny Hickman of Cracker-fame stepped on the AB Club's stage. The man recently released his first solo album - Palmhenge - and apparently found kindred spirits in the headlining band. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, Hickman played about a dozen of songs, both from his album, but also from the Cracker catalogue. Even though that band was often regarded as a project for former Camper Van Beethoven-frontman David Lowery to lay his more roots-oriented egg, Hickman has also contributed songs since day one, and for every one of their albums. As such, we got to hear the weary ballad "Another Song About the Rain" (from Cracker's eponymous debut), the Hee Haw! of "Lonesome Johnny Blues" (from the band's best-selling Kerosene Hat), the stomping "Trials & Tribulations" and the Stones-y "Wedding Day" (both from Gentleman's Blues). Even though these songs lacked Hackensaw Boysthe fleshed-out arrangements of the studio versions (except for "Lonesome Johnny Blues,' which got "the Hackensaw-treatment"), they proved Hickman to be a fine songwriter at ease in blues, rock and country. The songs from his solo album also displayed some variety, ranging from the gloomy "Little Tom" and the pensive "Friends" to the lighter ("Lucky") and tougher ("San Bernardino Boy"). Even though Hickman's songs are usually quite traditional, lyrically as well as stylistically, his charisma and wit ensured the brief set was too short.

The Hackensaw Boys have garnered a reputation many bands would be envious of. They were invited to perform at Belgium's largest festival for alternative rock (Pukkelpop), while their status as "the Ramones of bluegrass" has teased the curiousness of many a rock fan. Their energetic performances, as well as their albums, may indeed be high-energy shows, but this needn't imply the Boys are working outside of the tradition or revolutionizing it. Granted, you wouldn't confuse these cats with Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys or Flatt and Scruggs, but it's not that they are only randomly indebted to the tradition of what's often considered to be country's most conservative sub-style. As befits a genuine bluegrass act, the Hackensaw Boys use the whole array of stringed instruments (banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, fiddle), vocal harmonies and stories about life's little pleasures and misfortunes. The good thing in their case is that they don't flirt with mainstream pop and balladry (like Allison Krauss), yet also avoid to become a gimmick-band like Hayseed Dixie (and their bluegrass adaptations of hardrock classics). They firmly situate themselves in a tradition, yet manage to highlight certain aspects of it, turn up the energy, humour, youthful rashness and give their music a punk-attitude (it's no surprise at least two members started off in punk bands). If the O Brother, Where Art Thou?-soundtrack was a revelation to you, then The Hackensaw Boys with their wit and bite-sized bluegrass gems are right up your alley.

Bearing names like Pee Paw (fiddle), the Kooky-Eyed Fox (banjo), Salvage (percussion), Mahlon (mandolin), Dante J. (bass) and Shiner (guitar), this collective proud themselves of their Virginia roots and music tradition, yet succeed in keeping things fresh with their trademark speedy playing. And when I say "speedy," I really mean it. I have no idea how Shiner can strum his guitar like a maniac for nearly two hours, while all other members - but especially Mahlon - alternately add solos that'll make your head spin. Because there are so many people on stage (up to eight, when they were joined by a roadie-annex-guitarist and Johnny Hickman), the result is a wall of string-sounds. Under less suitable circumstances, I imagine this could result in a big blur, yet the sound people at the AB ensured the audience got a bluegrass party, nothing less. The energy meter stayed in the red for nearly 120 minutes, strings were banged, mistreated and broken, instruments were switched and jokes thrown into an audience that got crazier by the song. Even though raspy-throated frontman Shiner is the only extraordinary vocalist in the band (the mandolin player in particular is basically a shitty singer - also if American Idol is your standard), all the vocals and harmonies fitted the music perfectly. While the set had its quieter, wistful moments (mainly because of songs from the new album), the majority of the material could be filed under barn-burning bluegrass, an acoustic Virginia surrogate for an exceptional punk band. Highlights included several songs from the band's second album Keep It Simple, like the sing-along "Ruby Pearl," the Asian-tinged instrumental "Blue Run," the Fred Neil-styled "Miner" and a marvellous version of "Jonah."

The band played their asses off like there was no tomorrow and topped off their lengthy set with a few songs performed at the edge of the stage, making it sound as if they were playing in your living room. Occasionally, the quick pace and amount of ultra-fast songs would cause a déjà-entendu effect (maybe also a result of the band playing so many "unknown" songs), but in the end their obvious and total dedication, healthy sense of humour and childlike enthusiasm would be enough to charm even the most cynical spectator. I have no idea whether Del McCoury likes 'em, but it's an undeniable fact that these guys bring a refreshing wind to Rootsland, the kick under the ass it occasionally needs

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