Reverend of rockabilly heats up Metro show with Southern Sleaze

By Mara Stankiewicz

From a band whose album Liquor in the Front is subtitled “Poker in the Back” and whose finest lyrics include, “I got a wiggle stick, momma, and you’ll like it a lot,” one might expect a riotous performance onstage. After all, one doesn’t go to a rockabilly revival show without expecting several kitschy moments and at least two eruptions of sleaziness. Such was not the case at the Metro on Friday night for Reverend Horton Heat, who headlined the show that also featured Split Lip Rayfield and the Detroit Cobras. While the Reverend did liven up by the second half of the set, most likely because of his increased alcohol consumption, his usual juvenile antics and crude remarks were severely lacking. However, despite the Reverend not being up to the task, the crowd most certainly was.

One thing can be said for the Reverend: the “-billy” in rockabilly definitely came out for the show—hillbilly, that is. The Reverend himself is well known for filtering grunge and punk into old school rock, and therefore draws many rock enthusiasts. But because the lineup also consisted of a punk bluegrass band and a garage rock revival outfit featuring a female lead vocalist with a long, permed blond mane, the crowd was composed of punks, hipsters, meatheads, and riot girls alike. However, the eclectic crowd certainly made for many interesting moments, including but not limited to several pit fights, copious amounts of drunken groping, numerous flying thongs, and more than a normal concert’s share of balcony-spilled beers. Nonetheless, this was to be expected. Fans of Horton Heat aren’t there for lyrics about pretty flowers or piano solos; they come out for the pounding stand up bass and the opportunity to howl along with Heat to songs that speak of bales of cocaine randomly falling from the sky.

And they certainly got their chance. Heat played his two hits, “Wiggle Stick” and the Daytona 500’s 2002 theme “Like a Rocket,” in addition to crowd favorites like “400 Bucks,” “Baddest of the Bad,” and the aforementioned “Bales of Cocaine.” Despite Heat’s initial lack of energy, his musical ability was nothing short of superior. The five-minute instrumental song “Marijuana,” featuring Scott “Chernobyl” Churilla’s stomping drums and Jimbo Wallace’s spastic bass picking, was intoxicating. And when Heat’s vocals came in three times with a hushed “marijuana,” one regretted that the song was that much closer to the end.

The same goes for “It’s Martini Time,” a rockabilly-gone-lounge crowd darling that enabled Heat to demonstrate his proclivity for catchy, atmosphere-inducing guitar solos. However, the real highlight of the evening was the first track on Lucky 7, “Loco Gringos Like To Party.” The instrumental interlude builds up to an ultra-catchy chorus that nearly causes riff-induced whiplash. Another highlight was “Galaxy 500,” whose country guitar intro explodes into a punk rock break-up anthem.

As the main boundaries between genres slightly fade away and dissolve into ultra-specific mixed terms, it has become more important for artists to appeal to a specific audience by emphasizing their appearance or uniqueness. This has certainly worked in Heat’s favor, as his Southern rocker image, complete with slicked-back hair and raw Texas accent, has certainly earned him some credibility. In fact, it earned him a record deal with Sub Pop in the early ’90s, alongside grunge greats Mudhoney. The Reverend’s music is like a fine Texas steak: tough and charred on the outside and raw in the middle. He transitions from dirty porn whisper to stampeding rebel yell in a nanosecond, all the while preaching about ex-wives stealing toothbrushes. But beneath the gruff Texas ranger and sordid sleaze ball exterior, there is an undertone of a Southern romantic lover—the kind that really wanted to give you that “Cowboy Love,” but just scared you away instead.

During the show’s semi-intermission, Heat talked to the crowd about his hatred for singers’ tendency to speak between songs, known as “crab rat” in the business. He says he would rather drink beer and look like a moron. Well, he did drink beer and look like a moron—but isn’t that the appeal? No one wears bright red preacher jackets with flames up and down the sleeves in all seriousness, and powder-blue tuxedos aren’t usual attire for most people. Regardless, this is what turns the former pool shark James C. Heath into the Reverend, the fun-loving guitar freak that can turn a song about steak into something Buddy Guy would drool over. And, most importantly, this is what causes his concert, despite its diluted craziness, to make us feel like we’re home on the range.