Review by Fred Rudofsky
An electrified banshee was brewing outside the Ale House, but inside the Troy venue a standing-room-only crowd soaked up the dry-witted extemporizing, eclectic stories and brilliant songs of sin and redemption by Ray Wylie Hubbard on a Tuesday night. It was a helluva good time.
Hubbard’s last visit to the Capital Region was in 2012 at The Linda, and evidently he had made a strong impression because many in attendance were chatting about various song titles even before he began his set. Donning an acoustic guitar and backed by Kyle Snyder on a minimal drum kit and assorted percussion instruments, Hubbard sang in a voice that betrayed his formerly wild ways and affirmed his two decades of sobriety and prodigious creativity. “Rabbit” and “Snake Farm” provided a fine one-two combo: the former was a rumination on hunting; and the latter, a crock-pot cooker-styled blues about a free-spirited woman named Ramona who works at a reptile house, had the crowd singing the chorus (“Snake Farm, it just sounds nasty/ Snake Farm, it pretty much is”) to Hubbard’s delight from the get-go.
As Bill Hicks would’ve said, we have ourselves a reader here, too. Hubbard spoke of poets throughout the evening. Verlaine and Rimbaud inspired the Hayes Carll co-write “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” a tale of a woman “who’s wild as Rome…likes being naked and gazed upon” and has “danced with the Dead at the pyramids.” He followed that with a gritty take of “Down Home Country Blues,” a song in which Romantic poet William Blake and blues legend John Lee Hooker were held equal reverence. (Towards the end of the set, “The Messenger” extolled the merits of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose poetry inspired Hubbard at age 41 to confront his fears about playing solo gigs and abandon years of self-destruction).
With the exception of maybe Hamell on Trial or Billy Joe Shaver, no one references as many iconic figures and friends as unpretentiously as Hubbard does in recorded song and live performance. (Or even post-show -indeed, he told this reviewer in a casual aside about how he had recently sent a Lightnin’ Hopkins biography to his friend, Ringo Starr). He dedicated “Name Droppin'” to the late Mambo John, a legendary percussionist with Toni Price’s band and “prophet of the blessed leaf” from Austin – over a scalding slide guitar riff and stomping drum beat, Hubbard hollered out to Mambo John, Willie Nelson, Jon Dee Graham, Scrappy Judd Newcomb and Mary Gauthier to name a few. “Count My Blessings” triangulated the image of a
crow singing in time to a Lightnin’ Hopkins song heard in a car with the news of Sam Cooke’s death in 1964.
“Mother Blues,” from the 2012 essential The Grifter’s Hymnal, was vivid, hilarious and hypnotic. Over a wicked groove by Snyder, Hubbard half-sang, half-spoke about his wild, after-hours youth in Dallas when he had it all: a “fine stripper girlfriend” and “a ’57 gold top Les Paul.” The song, which counts David Letterman among its biggest fans, was replete with references to Hopkins, Freddie King, the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and the Hudson Brothers television show. In the end, the song was edifying, too. “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations -well, then I have really good days,” Hubbard drawled like a 21st century incarnation of Rumi as the bent notes of his guitar strings faded away.
Candid about his family’s bootlegging and grifting ways in 1940s and 1950s Oklahoma, Hubbard also recalled his father’s strategies about playing cards (“Mississippi Flush”) and reminisced about his Uncle Slaton (“Choctaw Bingo”). He also played “Up against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” the infamous song he wrote 40 years ago that gave Jerry Jeff Walker a hit just when the Outlaw Country movement was gaining some traction in Austin. “Sing along! Relive your wasted years!” cracked Hubbard. An emphatic “Wanna Rock and Roll” – “It’s your First Amendment right, my friends!” he explained in the introduction – was interpolated deftly with Son House’s “John the Revelator,” prompting all in the house to clap along like it was a revival meeting just as the thunderstorm intensified and flooded River Street.
Riding the wave of energy still pervading the Ale House, Hubbard and Snyder returned for an encore that featured a snatch of old blues and a reprise of “Snake Farm.” As the audience spontaneously sang along, Hubbard wiped the sweat from his brow, winked at the front row, and exclaimed, “Still funny, isn’t it?”
Opener Dustin Welch played a short but powerful solo set drawn primarily from his largely co-written albums, Whiskey Priest and the just-released Tijuana Bible. The humidity of the room affected the tuning of his acoustic guitar and banjo, but not his humor or performance. His voice sounded like blend of his father, acclaimed country artist Kevin Welch, and Steve Earle – lived in, thoughtful and attuned to the characters that populated songs like the Graham Greene-inspired “Whiskey Priest” and the upbeat tale of turbulence and loyalty in “Jolly Johnny Junker.”
A co-write with John Fullbright, “Gawd Above,” aimed for an Old Testament, first-Creator take on humanity’s sins. Played on banjo, Welch’s “Ash and Iron” was haunting in its imagery: “The taste of ash and iron on my tongue/ Every word I let escape hangs in the air.” Inspired by the “winged horses” cosmology found in a piece by Plato, Welch and Mark Germino co-wrote “Two Horses” – live, it proved to be a fine, meditative song on the duality of life. Welch closed out his set with “Don’t Tell ‘Em Nothin’,” a droll take on the advice of criminal defense attorneys set to a melody that hinted at the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.”
RAY WYLIE HUBBARD SET LIST
Drunken Poet’s Dream
Down Home Country Blues
Count My Blessings
There Are Some Days
Up against the Wall, Redneck Mother
Wanna Rock and Roll/John the Revelator
My Time Ain’t Long/Snake Farm
DUSTIN WELCH SET LIST
Jolly Johnny Junker
Ash and Iron
Don’t Tell Him Nothin’