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Heaether Myles is hot on a cold night

Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., Jan. 1, 1999

By Joel Bernstein

SOMERVILLE, MA - 1998 was the warmest year in history, and 1999 got off to a very hot start. As long as you were inside Johnny D's, that is. Honky tonk heroine Heather Myles came to town for the first time in more than five years, and there was a hot time in the old club.

Neither the 25 degrees below zero wind-chill outside nor the abundance of New Year's hangovers could prevent the place from being packed, with an audience that included such connoisseurs as Mike Ireland and Peter Wolf.

The Rounder artist is touring to promote her third studio album, "Highways and Honky Tonks." That album has received critical acclaim and heavy Americana play while making hardly a dent in the mainstream world.

Unlike most "alternative" artists, Myles has the kind of powerful and versatile voice that country radio loves. She is a gifted songwriter (writing 10 of 12 songs on her latest). And in an era where label executives are quoted as saying that a woman has to be a "babe" to make it, Myles is as beautiful as she is talented.

Her band creates a solid country sound despite lacking the traditional country instruments of fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Lead guitarist Bob Gothar, a veteran of her studio albums, was able to simulate the pedal steel somewhat when needed. But basically the band was just rocking, grounded in country primarily by the songs and by Myles classic vocals. (A quote, which she attributed to Ray Wylie Hubbard, is that "if Tammy Wynette and Buck Owens had a child, it would be Heather Myles.").

Drums were generally relatively subdued, which also helped keep it country. (On "Kiss An Angel Good Morning," which has a very loud drum track on disc, the live drums were noticeably quieter, an unusual occurrence.)

The first set, lasting a bit over an hour, was a terrific mix of country classics and Myles originals from her three albums, that kept the crowd dancing and yelling throughout. There was a stab at rockabilly with "Great Balls Of Fire," a bluesy tinge with "Mr. Lonesome" (one number that did feature a loud drum) and a touch of mainstream country with the should-have-been-a-hit "True Love."

But what Myles does best, and, most often, is the Bakersfield sound, from Buck Owens' "Under Your Spell Again" to Dwight Yoakam's "Guitars, Cadillacs," to her own gems like "Playin' Every Honky Tonk In Town." Gothar and bass payer Gary Hewett each took a turn at singing, performing adequately, but without any threat of stealing the show.

By the time the band returned at 11:45, the crowd had thinned considerably, and both the band and the remaining audience seemed to have lost some focus. Lowlights included Myles forgetting the words to one of her own songs, a Loretta Lynn number being aborted twice because the band couldn't figure out how to play it, and a blues number sung by Gothar that seemed distinctly out of place. The set had its highlights as well, including a couple of Tammy Wynette tunes and one of Myles' finest originals "Rum & Rodeo."

But even a relatively weak second set could not dim the luster of that great first set, and one of the finest nights of honky-tonk music seen in these parts in recent years.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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