Concert Review - The Reverend Horton Heat

If you’ve never been to a show at Bridge Street Live in central Connecticut, you’re missing out. The place is essentially a massive ballroom with a corner stage, plenty of table seating, suitably dim lighting and perfect acoustics. The ambiance of the building is set wonderfully in a retro rock and roll motif; art deco and clean design lines run tastefully rampant through the corridors and over toward the bar. It was exactly the kind of place that The Reverend Horton Heat would be expected to play.

Leading off the night was Continental, the relatively new rock and roll band featuring Dropkick Murphys founding guitar player Rick Barton. Barton’s image has changed; not so much invested in the carousing punk of old, he’s teamed up with his son on bass to tour the country playing good old rock and roll for whoever wants to hear. The only reference his band made to the Murphys was in the playing of “The Torch,” which Barton called “the last song I ever wrote for the Dropkick Murphys…it’s a song about life and the man I don’t want to be.”

Apart from that, Continental played a solid set of forty minutes, highlighted by their singles “No Reservations” and “Wrecking Ball.” Their tongue in cheek ode to relationships “Angel” stirred the crowd as well. For his part, Barton says he’s resolved himself to the fact that he’s happiest on the road playing music, and he certainly looks the part, seemingly at ease and enjoying himself. He may never separate himself from his legacy with the Murphys, but Continental is a talented outlet for Barton and his capable songwriting.

The Reverend Horton Heat is touring the country celebrating their twenty five year legacy up to this point. Still, freshly inked to a deal with Victory Records, it seems unlikely that The Reverend and his posse will feel content to sit on their heels and become a traveling museum. So it was that they arrived at Bridge Street Live.

Led by legendary singer/guitarman Jim Heath, about whom no less an authority than Lemmy said “go see him or I’ll kill you,” each night with the Reverend is a true to form revival of all that make rock, and by extension rockabilly, thrive in its infancy.

As Reverend Horton Heat toils in less and less obscurity, his audience begins to skew. Ten years ago, the hall was populated by punk enthusiasts and boot-clad circle-pitters (I should know, I was there.) Now in this brave new world, it was easy to pick out the faces of not only the new age of rockabilly fans, but rock and roll purists who lived through the genres heyday as much as forty years ago. There were more people dancing with their significant others than moshing, which lent the entire proceeding a friendlier, more fun atmosphere. The rock and roll revival was on.

The band began by working through songs from their nine studio albums (Christmas album excluded) like Bob Gibson used to talk about pitching: “Work fast, throw strikes.” What was most interesting is that the band avoided many of their more famous tunes as they wended through the catalogue, choosing album cuts like “Big Little Baby” and “Suicide Doors” to represent their respective efforts. Naturally, there were also the usual selections, executed with the expected talent and aplomb. “The Jimbo Song,” “It’s Martini Time” and personal favorite “Spend a Night in the Box” all made appearances.

With the opening proceedings finished, the band moved on to play four well-chosen covers celebrating their influence: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” began the homage, with Heath and upright bassist Jimbo Wallace switching instruments. Following that, Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” (and “Folsom Prison Blues” later on,) Willie Nelson/Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” and “Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” originally composed by Merle Haggard.

Of course, that was hardly the night’s conclusion. There was more rockabilly to be had, culminating in an arsenal of fast-paced fan favorites like “Big Red Rocket of Love,” “Drinkin’ and Smokin’ Cigarettes,” “Bales of Cocaine” and the obligatory “Psychobilly Freakout.” The band played a strong rendition of “400 Bucks,” which at its base is a different kind of song, by contrast to the set not so steeped in rockabilly fundamentals. This was naturally accompanied by “Galaxie 500,” a song that welcomed back longtime drummer Scott Churillo to the fold.

The critical fixture of the band’s music that has allowed them to persevere for so long, and gets too easily lost in all the veneer of rock and roll, is that Jim Heath is an absolutely fantastic guitar player. There’s no wasted motion in his style, a seemingly effortless strum that accentuates the exceptionally clean tone and remarkable action of his instrument. Heath’s playing is innovative, original and deceptively complex, steeped in standards but made new by virtuosity.

If you’ve never seen the Reverend before, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s always a good crowd, always a good show and most importantly, a great reminder of the foundations of rock that has shaped so much of the music we listen to.

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