Return of the Rev

Born again with a new label and album, the Reverend Horton Heat continues to preach his holy trinity of booze, broads and cars

Heath jokingly notes the one element that sets this collection apart is that "there are only six songs about drinkin' on the whole album." One of those, "Hand It to Me," is the tale of a man returning to the bars after a lengthy absence ("It's hard to believe I've gone and done it again/Went to a place to see all of my friends/One little sip and now look at me/If this bar were school I'd have a degree"). The tune juxtaposes the back-porch swing of the melody with the plaintive wail of Heath's voice -- which sounds as if he's pleading for recognition or rescue, but can't decide which.

Another, "Sue Jack Daniels," recalls an unfortunate evening spent ingesting quantities of Old Number 5 with the boys and ending up close friends with a tree that didn't get out of the way in time. "I'm gonna sue Jack Daniels for hittin' me/With the trunk of a big old live oak tree/He hurt me this morning with the bright sunlight/I'm gonna sue Jack Daniels for what he did to my face last night."

"There's a lot of truth to that song," explains Heath. "When I pass out . . . well, not when I pass out, but when I black out, I run. Most people just fall down and go to sleep, but I go running. One night I ran right into a freshly cut hedge and got stabbed right in the face. I had to do a whole tour with what looked like the world's worst canker sore on my face."

Despite a well-earned reputation as an on- and offstage hell-raiser, Heath says he's staying a bit more sober on this tour than in years past. "One thing about me being a little bit straighter at our shows is that I definitely play a lot better," he says. "I feel I'm getting a lot better as a guitar player and as a writer, and I can put on faster, more energetic shows than when I'm so drunk that I can barely walk."

Fortunately, neither Heath nor the rest of the band need to walk, run or take the wheel for the next few months. The trio is out on a lengthy national tour in support of the album and enjoying the luxury of a tour bus for the first time. It's something they note in Box's "Sleeper Coach Driver," an ode to their current home on wheels written from the perspective of their driver. "45 feet long and 11 feet tall, 14 televisions, shower and all/Two refrigerators and a satellite dish, I'll drive this sleeper coach wherever they wish."

"We toured for eight years in a Chevy van by ourselves," recalls Heath, "so to us that tour bus is like a castle." The song also serves as a lesson for up-and-coming bands that belittle their tour bus drivers, usually music vets themselves. "There are these young guys who are 21 years old, and now they're rock stars and they treat the bus drivers like they're some dumbass hillbilly piece of shit," says Heath with an air of disgust. "They don't realize that that guy probably played drums with Ernest Tubb for 20 years or something."

The lure and trappings of the open road have long been favorite subjects for the band. Heath, a hot-rodder at heart, owns a 1950 Ford two-door custom that's "too low for sanity" along with a '32 Ford currently being rebuilt from the frame up. "I've always been into cars and car songs," he admits. "When I was a kid, every guitar player had to learn to play 'Hot Rod Lincoln.' The hot-rod culture has definitely had an influence on my music. I'm actually thinking about doing a whole album about cars."

Whether the band or the audience arrive in a coach or in a rumbling bit of classic American steel, the destination is the important part, and for fans of the Reverend Horton Heat, all roads lead to the show. Listening to the band's albums is one thing; seeing the band onstage is quite another.

The band's live performance is a genuine spectacle, as evidenced by its amazing outdoor showcase at last month's South by Southwest festival in Austin. Emerging in custom flame suits to the strains of Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser," the group launched into a frenetic 45-minute set. By the end of the performance, Heath had the crowd of jaded industry heathens in the palm of his hand, proving that in his own peculiar pulpit, the Reverend is a man blessed and possessed by the true spirit of rock 'n' roll.

The Reverend Horton Heat is scheduled to perform on Thursday, April 6, at the Bash on Ash in Tempe, with Los Straitjackets. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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