Riders in the Sky
Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., Sept. 30, 1998
By Jon Johnson
SOMERVILLE, MA - It would be difficult to imagine a wider cultural gulf than that separating Son Volt's performance at the 900-seat Somerville Theatre and the Riders In the Sky show at the much smaller Johnny D's across the street. There might have only been 70 or so feet of pavement between the two popular venues, but as far as the audiences were concerned, it might as well have been 70 miles.
Son Volt represent one possible future for the alt. country movement; maybe even eventually for country music in general.
And Riders In the Sky? It doesn't come much more traditional. After 21 years together and more than 3,800 shows, the group still sounds much as it did when their first album was released 20 years ago.
In short, the members of Riders In the Sky know what works and, for them, that's cowboy music as it was played during the classic era of the Republic westerns of the '30's and '40's.
That's not to say that the group has been totally unwilling to experiment. One of the evening's highlights was a medley of three folk songs from the British Isles the group recently worked up for a cowboy poets convention. As much of a stretch as it might seem to link a Gaelic musical heritage that's more than a thousand years old with songs about cowpokes, rustler, and girls in gingham dresses, the group wrapped their gorgeous harmonies around the material with real tenderness and feeling.
Ranger Doug (guitar/vocals), Woody Paul (fiddle/vocals), and Too Slim (upright bass/vocals) are terrific entertainers; brilliant musicians, top-notch singers, and - something that Son Volt still needs to figure out, by most accounts - gifted comedians with senses of timing honed to a fine edge by years of stage, radio and television performances.
The audience was also treated this evening to a rare northeastern appearance by Joey the Cowpolka King, a brilliant accordionist who records with the band but who rarely performs with them outside of the south. The group is always entertaining in their regular three-piece guise, but Joey added a little extra something; allowing them to stretch out on some polkas and giving them a fourth vocalist.
Touring for their latest, "A Great Big Western Howdy," the Riders entertained the audience for nearly two hours. Though requests were occasionally shouted up for older songs like "As Soon as the Roundup's Through" and "Here Comes the Santa Fe," the focus was mainly on more recent material and cowboy classics made popular by the likes of Gene Autry and the recently-deceased Roy Rogers, to whom the group paid tribute at the end of the evening with a medley of his hits.
The Riders also performed a song from Ranger Doug Greene's recent solo album, which Fred "Too Slim" LaBour jokingly referred to as the product of "an enormous ego." The group's members also kidded Woody Paul about his (quite real) degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the field of theoretical particle physics. How many cowboy fiddlers can put that their resume?
In an era where "entertainment" is usually defined by the likes of hacks like Marilyn Manson, the existence and talent of a group like Riders In the Sky is a welcome relief. If one caveat could be made, it's that the sound could have been slightly louder. While it's a relief to go to a club and not be pinned to the back wall by the deafening volume, the mix was a little too far in the other direction, though it's a tribute to Greene's vintage Stromberg guitar (built in Boston!) that it could fill up the club without any amplification or miking whatsoever.
The evening's funniest moment probably came, though, not from the members of Riders In the Sky but from Tom and Ray of National Public Radio's popular "Car Talk," who were in the audience. After being called onstage to answer a couple of car-related questions, the brothers were given what was purportedly a rare 8-track tape of the first Riders In the Sky album. After leaving the stage the audience was treated to this statement from one of the Tappers:
"Hey! This is a Bee Gees tape!"