At S.P.I.T.T.L.E. 2001, changes prove no problems
The Brewery, Raleigh, N.C., Jan. 25-27, 2001
By Andy Turner
RALEIGH, NC - It wasn't your old millenium's S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest. No, the Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash Leisure and Entertainment 2001 was a changed festival. Gone were announcer/wrestler Major DeBeers, barbecue all three nights and many of the bands who had played nearly all of the Brewery's six S.P.I.T.T.L.E.'s.
Only Big Dixie, Trailer Bride and Tiff Merritt and the Carbines Ð had played the festival before, although many of the players had performed in other bands at previous fests. This year's festival was even broadcast live on the Internet.
But one thing remained: really good music. And perhaps even more impressive was that the majority of the bands lived with 20 minutes of the club. Ten of the 16 acts that took to the S.P.I.T.T.L.E. stage were from the Raleigh/Chapel Hill area. Hell, only three acts were from outside of the Tar Heel State.
Jostle Lee kicked off night one. The trio was led by a husband and wife duo and featured plenty of lovely harmony vocals between the two.
Hobart Willis and the Back Forty, the pride and joy of Snow Camp, N.C., take their cue from traditional honky tonk and outlaw country. Hobart Willis is a rather short young guy who has a wonderful deep yet tender voice that sounds an awful like Waylon Jennings. They mixed covers of folks like the Hag and Johnny Cash with top-notch originals like "The Way We Live" and "Painted Picture of a Honky Tonk Star" that are slated to appear on an E.P. due out in March.
34 Satellite has a sound that's not too far removed from North Carolina legends Let's Active and the 'dBs: heartfelt lyrics and lots of guitar-driven rock. The band is led by singer Marc Benning and also features former members of the Screaming Trees, Snatches of Pink and Whiskeytown. The beautiful "California" highlighted their set.
Greg Hawks and the Tremblers were night one's headliners and lived up to the challenge. Hawks, formerly of the Two Dollar Pistols, plays country that has more of a pop influence than his old band. That resulted in a more contemporary sound that was especially effective on songs like "Downtown Lights" and "Fool's Paradise," the title track from the band's debut release due in early February.
Mercury Dime had the unfortunate duty of entertaining a very sparse early crowd for night two. But lead singer Cliff Retallick still convincingly (and appropriately considering the circumstances) belted out his lonesome Dylan-influenced pop and twang from behind a piano.
Charlotte's Tombstone Daddy's come from a different world than Retallick and the Dime. Hair metal and hair mullets are king in Tombstone Daddyland. It's a place where every ounce of every word is wrung out as cheesily as possible like some bastard child of Michael Bolton and Axl Rose, and guitar solos fly dangerously into the night while those responsible for the blasts of testosterone think triumphantly to themselves, "The Bullet Boys are (still) pussies." But "Life is Like a Bowl of Chili" was pretty darn funny.
As much as the Tombstone Daddy's were over-the-top and in-your-face, Austin's Bluegrass Drive-By were laid-back and down-home. The quartet played a crowd-pleasing blend of traditional bluegrass numbers and original tunes like the hilarious "Texas City Blues."
The announcer introduced Thad Cockrell and the Starlite Country Band as a group capable of putting the hurt back in country music, and indeed, they were damn good at doing the sad songs. Thad Cockrell, best was described in a local Raleigh paper as a "stoutly built young man who looks like he ought to be playing defensive tackle" but sings with "the voice of an angel." Cockrell and the Starliters performed most of the songs off their Chris Stamey-produced self-titled E.P. Songs like "Hard Time Taking This Heart Break In" and "Why?" hit hard with the twin powers of Cockrell's high lonesome voice and the crying steel guitar. The defensive tackle in Cockrell got out when some wannabe heckler made the usual "play some Skynyrd" request. "I've got some Skynyrd for you. Meet me out back after the show," said the angel.
Everybody's favorite gothic hillbilly band, Trailer Bride, was up next and put in their usual competent (but nothing all that memorable) performance.
Speaking of angel voices, Tift Merritt needs a halo around her throat. The Raleigh by way of Texas singer and the Carbines headlined night two. Merritt has been recording demos for an as-yet-unnamed subsidiary of Mercury Nashville, according to Raleigh's Independent Weekly. Her lovely, captivating voice put the final nail in the coffin of any bad Tombstone Daddy air they made have still been hanging around.
Wilmington's Mountain Mama led off the final night playing mostly bluegrass and country covers.
Frog Holler turned in the silver medal performance of the festival. The Pennsylvania-based band is led by Darren Schlappich and has a sound that certainly owes a lot to Son Volt but comes off more rural. Standout numbers included "Hey Boy" and "Least Most Wanted." Frog Holler will have a new album in March.
With a North Carolina flag hoisted behind them and centered around a lone microphone, Chatham County Line played wonderful traditional bluegrass. Songs about biscuits and the Grand Ole Opry still rang true through the haze of the smoky bar and between sips off a fifth of whiskey by band members in between songs.
Big Dixie moved up the S.P.I.T.T.L.E. food chain this year, after serving as an opening act last year. These rowdy men specialize in songs about low rent strip bars and guys named Turd Ferguson. Their cow-punk sound isn't going to change the world, but Big Dixie, led by vocalist Jeff Holshouser and guitarist Sam Madison, seems happy as long as they rock as hard as possible and get in a few good jabs at ex-girlfriends.
Austin's Beaver Nelson plays roots-influenced pop (or is it pop-influenced roots music?). "Strong as I Look" and "Don't Bend, Just Break" were tender and engaging and proof that leaving it to Beaver is a good thing.
So you knew it was going to be spirited when Chip Robinson opened the Anti-Carpetbagger League's set with a song that began, "Some motherfucker's been pissing on my grave." The League is made up of former Backsliders Robinson, guitarist Brad Rice and bassist Danny Kurtz and former 6 String Drag drummer Ray Duffey, Robinson was presented a tray of deli meats by the "S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Queen" (Sam Madison's wife) in honor of him performing at all six festivals. The band played some new songs, a handful of old Backsliders' songs like "Throwing Rocks at the Moon" and "Abe Lincoln," along with a few covers. Rice took over on vocals for several songs, including "Dillhole" and "Hot Trucker Koch," that were fun if nothing else. And Robinson did a blue-eyed soul version of Prince's "Purple Rain" that sent the crowd into fits and led to widespread bologna-slinging. The Anti-Carpetbagger League provided the perfect ending to a festival that celebrates the goofy and the heartfelt, the rock-n-roll and the twang. (For Real Audio archives of S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest 2001, go to )