Saturday, May 26, 2012

This is a photo of Bill Kirchen @ White’s Bar around 10 years ago

I was all twisted up like a pretzel with excitement and a little bit of apprehension about Bill Kirchen’s upcoming show. First of all it’s on a Thursday, a weekday that used to be hot and is now totally unpredictable. And local press didn’t seem too interested; in fact they ignored the show. I wondered if anyone would remember Kirchen and all his glorious work with Emmylou Harris, Nick Lowe, Doug Sahm, Elvis Costello et al, let alone his groundbreaking performances with his first famous band Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen…

Seemed to me our memories can work against great artists that aren’t part of the star makin’ machine of rock n’ roll legends and hall of famers. Kirchen fits in that former not-the-star group of musicians who are recognized in music circles yet reside somewhere this side of mass popularity and mild acclaim. I guess Kirchen isn’t a brand like Seger or Kid Rock. I gotta admit that I didn’t know much about Kirchen except for his Commander Cody days. I read a glowing article about Bill in Blue Suede News, a great quarterly magazine for anyone who loves American music.

I remember attending a Commander Cody show in the early-to-mid seventies and was absolutely blown away by them. They fiddled and rocked and did a cool countrified boogie. They were more like the Flying Burrito Brothers than say, the Eagles, more authentic and more anchored to the counter-culture. But I really didn’t know much about all that other wonderful music he created in the ensuing 25 years or so.

Bill and I had the chance to phone talk several times before the show, and that was it for me. I was taken by his droll sense of humor and his acrid social commentary; we connected. I thought we were brothers-in-arms; at least we shared an ironic point of view about life. Kirchen is a rootsy real deal musician that’s been around the piss-pot and can laugh at his own follies and foibles. I just loved the idea of Bill Kirchen, the man as a concept, as a way of being. It was pretty far out; maybe I could learn something from him. Yeah, he could be my teacher and spiritual guide. And as sure as I sitting here, grousing about life in general and thumbing my nose at every false bourgeois impulse that courses through my body, I’m ready for a conversion.

Kirchen is a true road warrior, he’s performed on stages large and small across the U.S. of A and Europe for all of his adult life. Kirchen told me he’s performed more than he’s recorded and yet he has an impressive catalog of music and a Grammy nomination under his belt. Like any traveling minstrel, he comes to town with only the basics - his classic hot-rod-lincoln Fender Telecaster, effects pedal, a pick and his trusty microphone. He’s originally from Ann Arbor and, by his own admission, is a true corn-fed blue blood Michigander at heart.  Kirchen is tall and lean, dressed in jeans and flannel, exuding a laid-back down home vibe. He opens with a rootsy, country style instrumental, separating bass notes from treble notes, adding in the bass runs that lead up to his remarkably fluid chording – a classic!

He sure set the tone for what was to come, countrified trucker songs that seemed to be uniquely Americana – though in my hitchin’ days I never did meet a hillbilly druck-drivin’ man I could possibly relate to, either I was a bit too odd or they were a bit too strung out and in a bag. So, I’m not sure why I like these songs so much, maybe because it’s not just about driving; it’s more about living and not fitting in and being alone and lonely and feeling that nothing is really adding up.  It’s when Kirchen twists that effects knob and sings, “Here I sit with a broken heart, took three bennies and my truck won’t start”,  that I can get into that dark metaphor and whine and moan right along with his old beat-up telecaster. Kirchen’s “Hazardous Cargo Trilogy” (Dexedrine, Marijuana and Booze) was a gas with one of my all time favorite stoner weepers, “Down To Seeds and Stems”.

Kirchen played his ass off up with each finger keeping real busy, up and down the neck from the bass string to the E string, accentuating each note with such clarity it made me want to just sit with it for awhile.  He sang a couple of sweet finger pickin’ songs he did with Nick Lowe including “Castles in the Sand” and “Hammer of the Honky Tonk God” and a very cool “Rockabilly Funeral”, a dead-on toe tapping, belly rubbing laugh fest. Kirchen’s singin’ surprised me …he has a great voice that recalls a latter day – say late 80’s or early 90’s – Dick Wagner (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed). But it’s his pickin’ and grinnin’ that really sets him apart from the usual suspects. He ain’t no Van Halen or Hendrix, none of that flashy louder than God rock star sass; instead Kirchen is a master of country rhythms and warm tones.

His tribute to Buck Owens and Don Rich as well as his Grammy nominated “Poultry in Motion” and his take on Santo & Johnny’s Sleep Walk” illustrate his ease in conveying an incredible array of sound images. The highlight of the show was “Hot Rod Lincoln”, Kirchen’s big hit with Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen. His execution was brilliant and the middle section contained an extended tribute to all of his heroes from country to rockers; from the Fab Four to the pre-Fab Four; He jimmy-jammed on Howling Wolf, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Eddie Cochran, The Yardbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Cream and on and on.

 I loved it all like a hot bath and a massage and getting’ just a little bit naughty.The show was not without a few hitches. Although Bill is a true professional, he got angry with a few young lovelies who were strutting their stuff, laughing a little too hard and talking a little too loud. Bill stopped the show and told them to be quiet. He was noticeably angry. They laughed and stomped out. It was an uncomfortable moment.

After the show, I gave Bill his guarantee and we talked about a possible future show. I was hoping he could bring Nick Lowe to White’s; Bill was doubtful. He acknowledged that Lowe was a master but that he is essentially unknown in the heartland. They performed together throughout the mid-west a few years back to sparse crowds and small paychecks. He left abruptly. I lost a friend.

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