Though branding is just as popular for lack of cattle among some San Francisco circles, pursuing the country-western lifestyle here seems a dubious prospect. Nonetheless, country-western pretenders walk among us -- and some of them are even aware that they're pretending. Ironic detachment may not make for the best of country-western themes, but it is a useful device for smirking urban cowpokes like the Kuntry Kunts and Swingin' Doors.
A little boy wandering the crowd at Bottom of the Hill summarily verified the level of authenticity for this country-western show: His mom (who stood nearby) had made a showpiece of him using both a cowboy hat and a retina-searing tie-dye shirt. Tracers of visual purple churned along the youngster's wake. I claim no great familiarity with the local neo-country phenomenon, but I know costumes when I see them. Even if locals doff the proper ten-gallon and play decent honky-tonk, they're still hippies by Nashville standards. (The movie-cowboy fashion prevalent among "sincere" country-western folks is equally authentic.) Occasionally a young man of collegiate age and disposition would chime in with an oddly uninflected and halfhearted "Yee-haw!" The atmosphere was like that at an awkward Halloween party where most people have shown up without costumes.
Openers Starlene played the real deal, including a faithful rendition of "Stand by Your Man." (Gender-bender irony had to wait for the Kunts.) Fortunately, the vocalist could sing, and even belt -- crucial for performers in the genre. Pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and two-step beats are all well and good, but country western is still a form of folk music, where the voice reigns supreme, and the stories have got to be compelling. (Though of the latter, I can say little regarding Starlene. I thought I heard something about a "Texas tornado." Crowd noise vanquished intelligibility.)
The crowd thinned during the Kuntry Kunts, a local quintet who proffer an electric but traditionally minded country. Three-dollar Sunday barbecue shows at the Bottom of the Hill are guaranteed to draw, but sometimes only for the potato salad. Pity -- the Kunts were the belles of the ball. A badge-bearing dyke "sheriff" among their ranks introduced them with stories about recently moving to San Francisco from Texas. Apparently, this wasn't part of the act, but could just as easily have been.
Yes -- the Kunts' sexual identities, whatever those might specifically be, factored into their performance, but only due to the possible implications of their choice of moniker. Whether you're male or female; gay, straight, or other; joking, serious, or satirical, calling yourself a "cunt" (zany "K" spelling notwithstanding) is a loaded proposition. But the Kunts' talent, once revealed, rendered questions of taste and intent irrelevant. Narratives about saving up quarters for vibratory pony rides are good material for country-western songs -- all the more so because Dolly Parton, booby prize that she is for so many faux cowboys, never dabbled there.
A Steve Austin look-alike -- right down to the tawny eyebrows -- walked out during the performance at bionic speed, but a few other people stayed on who seemed to appreciate the vocals, if not the detachment. Naturally, to say that the older gent in the John Deere hat who stuck around -- a high-probability authentic redneck -- didn't "get" the joke is to assume much, but so what; I enjoyed their show, and so did he.
The joke was clear with the Swingin' Doors from the get-go, with their two-step rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." (Though perhaps not clear to some. On the bus ride back, a young goober handling a cowboy hat too small for his intellectual airs said of the cover version: "Talk about deconstructing that song!") The Swingin' Doors showed fine fashion sense: Their female lead singer wore a spangled jacket that lit up in the multiply-colored stage lights like an electrical fire in a Christmas tree. At times, however, I noticed how easily with certain treatments decent country western becomes weak rock. The Kunts and the Swingin' Doors both bring soul (music) and rock into their style; perhaps the Swingin' Doors just brought in a bit too much. (Personally, I think the form sounds best when it uses majestic spaghetti-western chords, but what the hell do I know?) And where the Doors veered off the comic path, calamity struck: Ballads about your beautiful, darling, sleeping children back at home are never, ever welcome to those whose birth-control practices have thus far proven reliable. Still, the Swingin' Doors provided the definitive smirk during their encore, simply by playing "Rhinestone Cowboy." Rhinestones are, after all, fake, and potentially funny.