Testing Positive for THC - John Exall and Texas Hippie Coalition in Concert
“We’re out there to melt your face.”
This was the boast from Texas Hippie Coalition bassist John Exall prior to the ‘outlaw hippies’ hitting the road for their most recent tour cycle. “We will give you the best show you’ve ever seen. That’s what we do.”
Exall didn’t stop there. Speaking in unadorned language, he added “If you like the album that’s great, but come out and see us live. You will get a show that you will not believe. I promise you that.”
It was impossible to resist that kind of guarantee. With that kind of buildup, the show has to be witnessed. Showcasing two albums, the raw “Pride of Texas,” and the bone-rattling “Rollin’,” THC was on a mission to the northeast, armed with enough grit and amperage to blow the doors off any club they played.
The venue’s large curtain had not yet been raised, but the lights had dimmed. The house music was gone. The crowd was fully engaged in that moment before a show starts, when the energy becomes palpable; turgid with anticipation and awaiting the grand catharsis. Eyes were drawn to the curtain, mentally willing it to lift and allow the evening’s chaos to envelop all involved.
“You might be seeing many different things,” Exall said of the band’s pre-show ritual. “You might be seeing us take a couple shots. But right before we head on stage, we pray. We get together and make a big circle and pray. Then we hit the stage.”
“Once we walk on stage, it’s on.”
“No Shame” was the band’s first impression as the curtain rose to try and make room for Texas Hippie Coalition’s performance. With a short drum roll into the unrelenting, fuzzed out guitar, the music stampeded over the crowd, engulfing all present in the first assault. Waves of full bore blues heavy metal cascaded from the stage to overwhelm those assembled. The song was a promising taste of the heavy-handed set of so-called ‘red dirt metal’ to come.
John Exall himself, to the man’s credit, is the band’s living battery. His performance is an inexhaustible maelstrom of crushing bass and physical momentum. It’s entirely possible that he is just plain incapable of standing still while on stage. Just as the crowd feeds off of the sound coming from the speakers, Exall symbiotically lives off the crowd’s enthusiasm.
“The emotion,” he explained about where his live performance is drawn from. “Getting up there and feeding off the crowd, feeding off your brother that’s standing next to you. You just get that electrical charge, I can’t explain it. Anybody’s that’s been on stage can probably say it better than I can, but you get this energy that rushes through you. That’s it, man. That’s it.”
He pauses in consideration before picking his next words. “It’s the biggest rush I’ve ever had, and the biggest payoff I’ve ever gotten is watching people sing our music back to us. There’s nothing like it… When you see people singing those songs, they know what we’re gonna play, they know there’s a guitar solo coming up, that’s the payoff.”
As soon as “No Shame” had faded to a ringing echo, Big Dad Ritch stepped to the fore. He is, in both character and physical stature, larger than life. Introducing himself by saying “I can’t be your baby daddy, but I can be your daddy, baby!” he is one part metal showman, one part outlaw cowboy and one part professional wrestler. Big Dad is an integral and necessary piece to the band’s charismatic anti-charisma. They say in acting that the best characters are those who are simply the actor’s personality magnified. To this end, Big Dad is an artist, piling light comedy and general badassery on top of his natural Texan disposition. The man and his band, give you the rewarding feeling of hanging out with an old friend and the guilty pleasure of rooting for the bad guy.
As he began to explain the story behind their next song “Texas Tags,” the crowd hung on each phrase. Unlike so many bands who embellish their songs with needless speeches and horrid, eye roll-inducing exposition, Big Dad Ritch tells stories simply and without pretension. His delivery is no different than it likely was a century ago, with outlaws and cowboys alike sitting around a fire with a guitar and a story to tell. Beginning with a story about how the band was pulled over in every non-Texas state on their first tour, Big Dad concluded his affable tale by saying “For our second tour, When I changed our RV’s registration from Texas to Oklahoma, we didn’t get pulled over once. So I figure it must’ve been those Texas tags.”
“Texas Tags” crushed the crowd underneath the weight of Randy Cooper’s threatening riff and Big Dad’s disaffected bellow. “We like to start out with a good one-two combination,” Exall had said of the band’s touring setlist.
Cruising through the title cut of their second album, Texas Hippie Coalition had subconsciously made two things clear: First, that all material, new or old, would be played with the same ferocity and raw power. Second, that this would be the same exact show no matter the crowd. As Exall described it: “Sometimes we’ll go into a place and play for four or five hundred people, sometimes we play to a packed house, sometimes we play to fifteen or twenty people. For us, it’s okay either way you look at it…I enjoy playing in smaller clubs much as I do playing a bigger venue. I think it’s more intimate that way. The fans always seem to come out no matter where we are, they always support us and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
It’s all part of the wonderful mystery that Texas Hippie Coalition presents in their music. It is undeniable that southern metal inherently possesses a groove capable of destroying mountains, clubs and brainstems, but there is something about the Texas Hippie Coalition’s southern metal that is more. Each tune contains an array of warped, evil, blues based riffs that grasp at the soul and appeal to the baseline downbeat junkie in each crowd member’s heart. The sinister, sneering, swaggering nature of the music has a kinetic, almost hypnotic feel that compels those in the crowd to want to play along.
The fury then abates as the band rolls into the softer “Troublesome Times” because, in Exall’s words, “We got it spaced out. [It] is more of a lighter song. We try not to wear the crowd out too hard.” The audience, cooperative to the last, takes a deserving break, swaying and rocking with the comparative ballad, and those paying attention can get their first real glimpse of the band dynamic in Texas Hippie Coalition.
What becomes evident from their interaction is that although Ritch might be the band’s public face, no one musician is more important than the others. They communicate confidence and kinship wordlessly throughout their set, each regarding the other with something more than simple professional respect.
“I played in many bands before this, and been either one of the major songwriters or the songwriter. But in this band, it’s awesome to have a collective that each one of them can write, each one of them has a feel for what’s going on. It’s magic,” Exall said. He then pauses for a second time, taking a quiet moment to assemble how he feels about his bandmates in concise terms. When he finally speaks again, his voice is confident and sure.
“We have some squabbles…but for the most part we’re a family. Not just a brotherhood or a band, but a family.”
The set pummeled its way forward, through hits old and new, including a punchy “Drug Dealer,” and a surprise ace in the hole, “Jesus Freak.” The latter was arguably the quartet’s best piece of the evening, as drummer Tim Braun, a livewire tenuously settled on top of a drum stool, seemed to channel just a little extra and beat his kit into submission.
Broken into pieces, the set was spaced out by virtuoso solos from Randy Cooper and Tim Braun. Cooper put on an exhibition, working through both large parts of Van Halen’s super-classic “Eruption” and a metal reworking of the Star Spangled Banner, complete with Ritch waving a flag behind his blazing guitarist. Braun ran through an exhausting, punctuated solo, playing his kit while both sitting behind it and walking in front of it.
All that out of the way, plus several more tracks from “Rollin’” aside, there were only two things left on the checklist for the evening. The audience’s patience was rewarded with two more chaotic, pulverizing performances.
“I wrote this song for the baddest motherfucker on the planet,” Big Dad approached the front of the stage and stated plainly. It was a simple harbinger of a much larger moment as the set plunged into its back half. There has been one universal bonding moment in the heavy metal community since the fateful night of December 8, 2004: The death of heavy metal and Texan superstar Dimebag Darrell Abbott. It was a night that hit particularly close to home for the Texas Hippie Coalition, and in this moment, bravado gave way to an honest remembrance.
“Most people want to have a moment of silence for Dimebag Darrell,” Ritch continued, “but since Dime was all about making a ton of fuckin’ noise…I say fuck the silence!” With that, “Clenched Fist” was on. The song, with its deep bass intro and impossibly infectious groove, is equal parts musical experience and physical state of being.
“Man, I enjoy [all our songs.] But I must say “Clenched Fist” for me [is my favorite,]” Exall had said prior to the tour, his voice ever so subtly touched with quiet reverence. “That’s the one for me. Gives me chills every time. It was written for a reason. [Dimebag] is dominant in [Texas.] He was everywhere before, and even gone, he’s everywhere. He impacted and touched so many peoples lives in so many different ways, he’ll be remembered forever. He was one of a kind, and he’ll never be duplicated, I promise you that. Still chokes me up talking about it.”
Every two-bit band and their half-baked metal brother have some tune that they profess to have written, or at least commonly dedicate to, Dimebag Darrell Abbott. Yet it is a different feeling to hear the Texas Hippie Coalition say goodbye to someone whom they intrinsically understood and in turn would have understood them. Blood is thicker than water in the insular community of Texas heavy metal and Darrell Abbott was everyone’s blood in that brotherhood. “Clenched Fist” rattled teeth and shook bones, just the way it should have.
Finally, everything came to the ending crescendo. There was only one mandatory task left.
“Pissed Off and Mad About” was on the first album, and made it to the second album as well,” said Exall about the song every fan knew was coming. “We felt like it was still relevant and still had something to say, so we put it on there…That song took us all the way to Springer, you can’t beat that!”
Just as it was with “No Shame” almost ninety minutes prior, it was “on” for “Pissed Off and Mad About It.” With the same exact potency that had dominated the set from the first note, THC launched into the night’s last song, exhorting the crowd to keep up just one more time. With its distinctive cadence and snarling breakdown, it was hard for the crowd not to dig deep for one more frenzied response, especially with Cooper and Exall bounding back and forth across the stage, throwing their own bodies into the performance.
Finally, band members covered in perspiration and physically exhausted, the rough, raspy, magnificent cacophony died away. The four band members, these ‘outlaw hippies,’ took their stage bow and exited, leaving a branded impression on the brains, spines and ear drums of those privileged enough to be there in person.
In truth, for the Texas Hippie Coalition, it’s hardly about them. It’s all about giving the fans an unforgettable experience. Without ornate lights, dramatic stage arrangement or ludicrous costumes, THC is just as memorable as any number of modern metal acts, perhaps more so. Asked both what fans should expect from a THC show and what it expected from the fans, Exall replies in his straightforward, refreshingly honest style.
“Go in and let your hair down, just be who you are. Because the way the music feels is the way it feels to you.”
Somehow, with only a few words, he sums up all that makes music… music. The band’s show is a blend of the best parts of down-home blues rock, heavy metal bombast, and as the band calls it, “ass-whoopin’.” When it’s all over, that’s the moral of the Texas Hippie Coalition. Their music and their stage show aren’t meant to be dissected, analyzed or placed under a microscope for in-depth scrutiny. They are simply meant to be enjoyed. Period.