Bill Kirchen is probably the kind of person Leo Fender had in mind when he invented what was to become the Telecaster guitar back in 1949. The Tele is among the twangin'-ist, most tough-toned electrics ever to hit the market, and for 20-odd years Kirchen has used his in an incomparably high-spirited way.
Kirchen anchored Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, the Bay Area band that played country and country rock through many years and musical fads, turning people on to roots sounds they didn't know they even liked. In fact, Kirchen lured his fellow Airmen here from Michigan in the early 1970s.
Kirchen can also write a mean trucking song or an inspired piece of nonsense like "Too Much Fun," a swinging ditty that gave his current two-man backing band its name. He may be best known for Cody's version of "Hot Rod Lincoln," in which Kirchen's Tele brings that fateful drag race to life. Kirchen now uses the tune in concert as a jaw-dropping tour de farce. When the driver says, "Boys, I got a license to fly/ The Caddy pulled over and let me by," Kirchen imitates musical gods who might let him pass: Merles (Travis, Haggard), Kings (B.B., Carole, and Elvis), etc.
"It's our big Wayne Newton climax," says Kirchen, who now lives in Maryland. "We have to do it pretty much every gig." He keeps it fresh for drummer Jack O'Dell and bassist Johnny Castle by mixing in different Kings (Albert, Billie Jean), Jimi, or the Sex Pistols. Not one to miss an automotive metaphor, Kirchen says: "Yeah, we try to keep it up on two wheels, running it up on the guardrail. I always do a different number of measures on each one, so they're pretty agile by now."
Proof is in Kirchen's recordings, made post-Cody and after a couple of albums with Nick Lowe. This year's Raise a Ruckus places the trio in relatively lush settings, alongside accordion giant Flaco Jimenez and Marin-based keyboardist Austin DeLone, who also produced the CD. Yep, there's a trucking song, as well as witty compositions by Kirchen's wife, Laurie. But when pressed, Kirchen admits that driving his extra-long red Econoline van to gigs is the closest he gets to what he calls "the fabulous, glamorous world of owner/operators."
-- Bill Kisliuk
Bill Kirchen performs Wednesday, June 23, at 9:30 p.m. at the Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10; call (510) 841-2082. Also Thursday, June 24, at 9 p.m. at DeMarco's 23 Club, 23 Visitacion Ave., Brisbane. Tickets are $8; call 467-7717. Friday, June 25, at 9:30 p.m. at the Sweetwater, 153 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $12; call 388-2820. And Sunday, June 27, at 4 p.m. at Rancho Nicasio, 1 Old Rancheria Rd., Nicasio. Tickets are $5; call 662-2219.
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