I'm loathe to admit it, but I went into last night's Scott H. Biram show at The Rhythm Room a bit skeptical, or worse, even a bit cynical. Don't get me wrong. I like the whole punk-blues-country-bluegrass thing as much as the next guy, but I tend to find the fans' slavish devotion to the genre tiring. Entering the bar seemed to confirm my doubts. There were plenty of pompadours, trucker hats, tattoos, handlebar mustaches, and beer guts on display.
It's not that I don't enjoy the punk-rock take on twang enjoyable. I wasn't around for the first wave of "alt-country," which found bands like The Mekons marrying high-lonesome sounds with punk's immediacy, but that didn't stop me from getting pretty heavy into later acts like Whiskeytown, The Scud Mountain Boys, or Uncle Tupelo. But somewhere along the line, the plot seems to have lost its way, and suddenly every paunchy guy with a half-sleeve and an electric pick-up latched to a sticker-covered acoustic was plying "roots" music, aiming for authenticity by way of a fake Southern accent.
So, yeah, I was a bit hesitant as Biram took the stage, half-convinced I was in for more of the same. To put it bluntly: I wasn't. Biram waltzed to the microphone as the crowd roared, and proceeded to blast my ass out of the water. This wasn't typical one-man band grab-assery, this was full-on stuff. It helps that Biram possesses the charm of a crazy person, and the chops of a seasoned entertainer, looping feedback, playing slide guitar, pummeling a stomp box-bass drum emulator and howling into what sounded like some far off transistor radio.
"Last time I was here, I whipped my dick out and played guitar with it," Biram croaked, referring to his last visit to the Rhythm Room and a botched attempt at a Led Zeppelin cover. "That got me in trouble in Texas," he laughed. "My momma still thinks I mooned someone, but I've got 36 years in the whipping-my-dick-out-business."
Biram, seated in front of a stack of amps and a mighty pedal board didn't aim for authenticity -- his distorted chords owed a substantial debt to speed metal and punk -- but he succeeded by combining the raw ingredients of country and blues with the aplomb and ferocity of his heavier leanings, wailing like the unholy offspring of Abner Jay and Bob Log.
Following excellent sets by local band Hashknife Outfit, who tested a brand new rhythm section for their set, and The Dirt Daubers (featuring J.D. Wilkes of The Legendary Shack Shakers), Biram tore through a marathon set, over 90 minutes of frantic strumming, feedback and thoroughly scratchy catcalls, never sacrificing his gift for melody or songcraft in the chaos.
"I called my momma," Biram said as he introduced the best song of the evening, "Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue." "I said, momma, I think I wrote a hit, and she said, 'Honey, of course you did,'" Scott's mother was right. It proved to be the most dynamic song of the evening, which found Biram's rough edges only slightly softened, retaining his tough-guy image but coupling it with the sort of melody a modern country-radio artist would kill for, equal parts lovesick, belligerent, and powerful. I heard one guy in the audience shout, "It don't get any better!" and I watched the photographer assigned to the show rock out. How often does that happen?
"Fuck what ya heard, it's what ya hearin'," reads the Earl Simmons quote on Hillgrass Bluebilly Web site, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to take Mr. Simmons at his word on this one. Comparing roots music to its past only gets you, well, traditional roots music, and that can get awful boring and stale. Nothing like what Biram and friends brought to the stage last night. Maybe it was the sheer volume of it all, maybe it was the buck-fifty PBRs, but I'm feeling a bit embarrassed at my early Doubting Thomas leanings. Here's to being proved wrong.
Last Night: Scott H. Biram at Rhythm Room
Better Than: The hee-hawing on stage was far better than the situation in the mens restroom. Door-woman Ami Johnson, rated best bouncer by the New Times, warned me not to enter. "I don't think it's a poop problem, but there's definitely a pee-pee problem."
Personal Bias: Some of my stodgy "I don't think this is gonna be awesome" attitude might be sprang from missing NBC's uniformly excellent Thursday night programming, but, hey, that's why God gave us Hulu.
Random Detail: My friend Jeremy, who plays in Hashknife Outfit, informed me that Biram, a buddy of his, is a bit of a troublemaker -- he's banned from at least one venue in Tucson for shouting at an owner, has been known to blow up a sound system or two, and had an incident much like his Led Zep cover take place in a glass elevator. Sounds pretty outlaw country to me. Some needs to get on a Crazy Heart -style film about Biram.
Further Listening: Abner Jay: seriously, this guy had the dirty-blues, one-man-band thing locked down.