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Hancock, Kirchen share magic

The Birchmere Music Hall, Alexandria, Va., February 22, 2013

Reviewed by Greg Yost

Bill Kirchen and Wayne Hancock each keep traditional country music alive in their own unique ways - Kirchen is the Fender Telecaster master with tasty, rockabilly-inspired electric licks a-plenty, and Hancock is the staunch traditionalist with a signature acoustic amalgam of blues, swing and honky tonk. Although they share very little in terms of sound, there was a definite feeling of synergistic magic in the air when the pair shared the same stage.

Hancock (acoustic guitar and vocals) took the stage first with Zack Sapunor (upright or "doghouse" bass) and Zach Sweeney (lead guitar) in tow and proceeded to tear through a concise and impressive set.

Hancock is currently touring in support of "Ride," his outstanding new album on Bloodshot, but there was no real emphasis on the new songs. A few cuts from the new album including the vintage blues shuffle of Fair Weather Blues made the list, but it was heavy with favorite selections from the six studio albums Hancock has released since 1995.

Hancock generally has two types of songs - slow and melancholy tunes that showcase his distinct and emotive vocal style and high-energy and swinging country stompers that make you want to get up and cut a rug. The former was well represented on songs like Cow Cow Boogie, Johnson City and his classic Thunderstorms And Neon Signs, while the latter was even more abundant with songs such as Highway 54, Throwin' Away My Money, Miller, Jack & Mad Dog, That's What Daddy Wants and Freight Train Boogie, one of a handful of songs to feature Sweeney's amazing talents as a soloist.

The only problem, if you can really call it that, with this set was that you felt the need to get up and move to the music - a no-no at The Birchmere. As Hancock noted during his one piece of between-song banter, "This is a listening room, I'm not used to that."

Hancock was always a tough act to follow, but Kirchen and his backing band Too Much Fun were up to the challenge. The trio - Kirchen (lead electric guitar and vocals), Maurice "Mac" Cridlin (electric bass) and the highly-entertaining Jack O'Dell (drums and vocals) - took control of the stage from the start, and the hour-long set rolled by fast.

For Kirchen, an electric guitarist probably best known for his contributions to Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in the late '60s through the mid-'70s, the Birchmere show was a homecoming of sorts. Although he currently resides in Austin, he called Washington home for a long time. This translated into a definite familiarity between performer and crowd that lead to a relaxed performance.

A big chunk of Kirchen's set was compromised of tracks from his two most recent studio recordings - 2006's "Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods" and 2010's "Word To The Wise." The thunderous title track of the former got the set started appropriately before yielding to the roots rocky/power poppy Get A Little Goner and the lovely Rocks Into Sand. The group then continued with humorous songs like Bump Wood Word To The Wise and Arkansas Diamond.

Kirchen's power pop rendition of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin' was a memorable moment. There was nothing fancy about this cover, just simple and straight-forward.

Of course, the singular highlight was the always excellent extended rendition of the hit single Hot Rod Lincoln. This smile-inducing song is great in concert because Kirchen adds a special section where he describes all the great musicians he passes on the road by playing their signature licks. There are many videos of this song online, and this is a must-view if you haven't had the pleasure of seeing/hearing Kirchen live.

The evening concluded with an amazing jam featuring Kirchen, Hancock and their four

supporting musicians. The sextet took on two old chestnuts - Milk Cow Blues and Move It On Over. Both songs offered great solo moments for each talented player on stage, including Kirchen pulling out an plastic yellow trombone at one point - an odd exclamation point on an evening of great music.

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