Indignities aside, BR5-49 continues to cook
Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., March 24, 2000
By Jon Johnson
SOMERVILLE, MA - BR5-49 came full circle. The band had made their Boston debut at the same venue in January 1997, and at the time, expectations were high that the band could be the Great White Hope of traditional country music.
The buzz surrounding the group in 1997 was considerable, they were signed to Arista Records, and they had even managed to turn their version of Moon Mullican's "Cherokee Boogie" into a minor radio hit. Given their energetic stage show and just a little more support from radio, the group looked poised for bigger and better things.
You know the rest. In spite of relentless touring, radio regarded the group as little more than a novelty act.
The latest indignity is that Arista is releasing the group's upcoming live album less than three months before the label is expected to shut down their Nashville operations (probably at the end of June) and at a time when the label has already shed much of their promotional staff in anticipation of the closing. Needless to say, sales expectations for the album are low, to say the least.
But you'd never have known all that from seeing BR5-49 Friday night. Hitting the stage before a packed house, the band turned in a superb one-and-three-quarter hour set, touching on numbers from their two studio albums and their 1996 live EP, as well as several unreleased new songs that will be heard on their live album out in April, including "Tell Me Mama," "Sweet Sweet Girl," and rhythm guitarist Gary Bennett's heartbreaking "Pourin' Pain."
Though opening with Billy Joe Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train," the group seems to be relying less on cover material now than in the past. In earlier Boston performances the band could be expected to devote upwards of 50 percent of their set time to other people's songs, a figure that's down to about 30 percent at this point.
Though most covers were familiar to those who had seen the band before ("Cherokee Boogie," Mel Tillis' "I Ain't Never," Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road," etc.), lead vocalists Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead dueted on a fine rendition of "Humdinger" by Tommy Collins, who had passed away the previous week.
And while "Cherokee Boogie" remains the group's sole radio success, the group puled out a number of other should-have-been-hits, including "Bettie Bettie," "Little Ramona," "Me & Opie," "18 Wheels and a Crowbar," and "You're Never Nice to Me," among others.
Multi-instrumentalist Don Herron continues to be the group's secret weapon, switching between steel guitar, fiddle, and electric mandolin; oftentimes playing all three within the space of the same song, resulting in some stunning trading of solos between Herron and lead guitarist Mead, particularly on the band's encore of the Bob Wills standard "Take Me Back to Tulsa."
Bassist Smilin' Jay McDowell and drummer "Hawk" Shaw Wilson (he of the razor-thin black moustache) provide as solid a rhythm section as ever, with McDowell adding a bit of rockabilly flair to the band's sound.
As for the opening act, confusion reigned behind the scenes in that department. BR5-49's regular openers on this tour, Seattle's highly touted The Souvenirs, pulled out of this leg of the tour to shoot a movie, to the disappointment of many who had hoped to see them make their Boston debut.
Though local honky tonkers The Dave Foley Band had been scheduled as replacements until just a few days before the show, in the end their slot was given to The Tarbox Ramblers, a popular Boston act who have a debut album coming out in April on Rounder. A quartet featuring guitar, fiddle, upright bass, and drums, the Ramblers specialize in a country-blues approach that somehow manages to evoke both the pre-war and post-war styles all at once. Seasoned by years of regular local performances, the Tarbox Ramblers turned in a tight, strong 45-minute set, which included numbers from their upcoming album like "Stewball" and "Shake 'Em On Down."