Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dale Watson and Reverend Horton Heat present intimate evening of Tall Tales and Short Songs

Photo by Roman Sobus

Honky Tonk hero Dale Watson and Roots Rocker Reverend Horton Heat (a.k.a. Jim Heath) transformed City Winery’s sleek nightclub into a Texas bar room for a sold out show on July 20 on a hot summer night.

It seemed a monumental task since both artists were minus their bands and performed solo. Nonetheless Watson and Heath proved up to the task and put on a show that was wildly entertaining and lived up to its promise of “Tall Tales and Short Songs.”

The atmosphere of twangy retro roots music (Watson coined the term “Ameripolitan”) brought to mind the late, great Chicagoan Steve Goodman and his take on how to write the perfect country song, which is exemplified in his classic “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” famously covered by outlaw country artist David Allen Coe: “I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison…”

Goodman noted that country songs mainly consisted of these subjects: trains, trucks, prison, mom, pet dog and drinking. Watson’s and Heath’s sets fulfilled Goodman’s standards, especially the drinking songs.

Their closing duet of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” covered most of the bases alone. Trucks didn’t make an appearance on this night, but Watson is known for playing some badass truckin’ songs with his band.

The affable, humorous Watson opened the show, dressed in a black leather vest and tank top to display his many tattoos, plus jeans and boots. You will not find Watson covering his white pompadour with a cowboy hat.

Photo by Roman Sobus
When it comes to both kinds of music -- country AND western as well as rockabilly-- this guitarist-singer-songwriter is decidedly old school and rejects the pretentious pop music masquerading as country that Nashville continues to churn out. Later in the evening, Watson and Heath performed as a duo and served up Watson’s indictment of the country music industry with “Country My Ass,” a favorite of George Jones.

In fact, Watson sings in a deep, resonant baritone that sounds uncannily like the late great legend Jones; and also like Johnny Cash when he sings down low.

Watson asked for requests from the sold-out audience and he granted many of  them, both covers and originals. On this night, Watson sat on a stool, playing an acoustic guitar, rather than his trademark Telecaster, decorated with all manner of silver coins.

The covers included a couple of Merle Haggard’s songs, plus an audience singalong on Tom T.Hall’s bluegrass hit from the ‘60s, “Fox on the Run.”

The audience rejoiced in Watson’s originals: “I Lie When I Drink (And I Drink a Lot),” “My Baby Makes Me Gravy,” “Holes in the Wall,” and “Where Do You Want It” (a semi-apocryphal song about outlaw country artist Billy Joe Shaver’s back alley brawl and arrest).

Best of all was a trip down the yellow brick road to visit the Honky Tonk Wizard of Oz with “Whiskey, Tequila and Beer – Oh My!” which was a fun, and funny, sing-along.

Watson got us laughing as he shilled for Lone Star Beer in between songs. He sipped from his longneck, accompanied by cheesy recorded music on his phone, and sang the praises of his favorite Texas beer, declaring: “The only beer that whitens your teeth!” And: “The only beer that creates brain cells! Einstein drank it.”

Raconteur Watson recalled Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result that never happens.”

“Well, I’ve been married four times,” Watson said, adding “which is why I wrote this next song.” He then performed the title track of his most recent studio album “Call Me Insane.”

Watson mentioned the release of a new live album, due to drop in August, "Live At The Big T Roadhouse, Chicken S#!+ Bingo Sunday,"  on Red House Records. He didn’t go into detail about how the game is played but this reporter has the scoop on the poop. 

In a nutshell: Watson owns The Big T Roadhouse in St. Hedwig, Texas (outside of San Antonio). On any given Sunday that Watson and his band, The Lonestars, are in town, Big T’s hosts the Chicken Shit Bingo game in which a caged hen struts across a plywood board divided into numbered squares. 

Patrons purchase $2 tickets (which  includes free all-you-can-eat hot dogs) and cheer for the bird to poop on their chosen number to win cash prizes, while listening to the band (guitar, pedal steel, standup bass and drums) play honky tonk, outlaw country, authentic country, rockabilly and Texas swing.

This reporter acquired an advance copy of the CD, which – in addition to some great “Ameripolitan” music -- includes all of Watson’s hilarious game show host banter, jokes, audience participation and Lone Star beer commercials. The bingo game also has a “Let’s Make A Deal” aspect to it that involves Dale’s jean pockets, which we won’t reveal here.

Watson’s City Winery set may not have been as wild and crazy as Chicken Shit Bingo Night, but it was pretty darn fun just the same.

We have never seen Reverend Horton Heat, but his raucous psychobilly shows with his band are the stuff of legend. He has been described as: “a rock’n’roll shaman channeling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins through Buddy Holly, surrounded by tattooed rockabilly chicks in poodle skirts and cowboy boots.”

We knew that seeing him solo would be a much tamer experience.

Jim Heath (his real name) came onstage equipped with a stunning custom Gretsch guitar emblazoned with his name. He was ready to follow Watson’s lead to unleash a stable full of tall tales – funny, strange, eerie and outrageous stories -- along with a buffet of covers from the '50s to '60s, and originals that sound like they are from that era as well.

Photo by Roman Sobus
Without his hard driving trio to move the crazed rock ’n’ rollers to the dance floor, Heath had to rely on his wit and immense guitar skills to wow the faithful, who remained politely seated.

He furiously played his six-string hollow bodied signature Gretsch 6120RHH on rowdy rock’n’roll, surf rock and rockabilly songs like “School of Rock,” “Red Rocket of Love” and “Big Little Baby.” He even played a Jerry Lee Lewis style original on which the Killer’s piano pounding was translated to the guitar -- a pretty neat trick. He got the joint rockin’ in their seats.

Heath’s guitar needed constant tuning, so he had plenty of time between songs to give us the back story on why he wrote them. “Where Hell Did You Go With My Toothbrush?” is a song about his first wife leaving him.

It was a perfect “tears in my  beer” country song with lines like “She took the last bar of soap/ And didn’t even leave me a towel to dry my tears.” She even took his best friend, Smokey, his dog. (Steve Goodman would approve of this one.)

He told a story about his college days with roommate David Livingston and another classic country song they wrote together: “Liquor, Wine and Beer.” Heath showed his musical diversity and his nimble guitar skills with some finely arranged covers. He played jazzy swing on Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” along with a splendid version of the classic “Harlem Nocturne.”

He introduced the next instrumental number, saying it was a Henry Mancini song from the 1930s. However, it sounded a lot like Link Wray’s “Rumble” from 1958, which also was used for a theme song on a Chicago TV show called “Creature Features.”

Heath told stories about Johnny Cash dropping M80s down toilets in hotel rooms, a haunted hotel room he once stayed at in Chicago, playing golf with Willie Nelson, and his comedian neighbor who went on to write for the Beavis and Butthead spin-off cartoon, “King of the Hill.” (Heath even did a dead-on impersonation of Boomhauer).

Watson came back out to join Heath in some humorous banter as they requested each other’s favorite songs. Watson urged his buddy to sing “Bales of Cocaine,” a humorous tale that sprang from a fevered dream Heath had in his younger days, while sweating in the hot Texas sun doing farm work.

Watson sang the afore-mentioned “Country My Ass” and talked about meeting  his idol George Jones. The duo had us singing along on real country classics: “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

The compadres also quizzed each other about famous sideman, asking trivia questions about legendary guitarists James Burton and Roy Buchanan.

Seeing this stripped down version of these two artists without their bands exceeded expectations. Equipped with only their guitars, singing voices, raconteur wit and humor, and larger than life personas, Dale Watson and Jim Heath shared their  unique stories and songs. They kept our attention as they captured our imaginations, made us laugh and entertained us with a nice variety of American music for nearly 2 ½ hours nonstop.

I left City Winery Chicago convinced that I need to find whatever church or tent show that the good Reverend Heat is preachin’ in next and attend a service. And then I’ll scoot over to Big T’s for Dale Watson and his Lonestars on Chicken Shit Bingo Sunday.

Linda Cain champions the Chicago blues scene through her website,

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