Ray Wylie Hubbard
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Better than: Any concert that doesn't leave you sputtering in awe of the words coming out of the singer's mouth.
The joys of drunken shouting aside, it's too bad that after some four decades in music, Texas iconoclast Ray Wylie Hubbard is still probably best known for writing the country standard "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." Onstage at Cafe Du Nord last night, Hubbard recounted how a couple of people told him before the show they'd be disappointed if he didn't play the anthem Jerry Jeff Walker made famous. As Hubbard explained, even if he didn't want to play it -- and doesn't usually -- after that, he sort of had to.
Both this sense of obligation and the song itself stood in stark contrast to the rest of the set, where the shaggy-haired country outlaw recounted stories and spooned out wisecracks over the woody twang of his vintage Gibson dreadnought. Though he was accompanied only by the guitar, a harmonica, and his 19-year-old son, Alex, on lead six-string, you got the sense Hubbard could've kept the room rapt with just his one-liners, which were self-deprecating, aphoristic, or both:
- "You get more attention burning down the barn than taking out the trash," he announced, recounting a story from his childhood in which even Wylie's Nebraska relatives heard about his pyrotechnic misadventure.
- "I realized, if I was a woman, I would be a slut," he offered, as part an introduction to "Train Yard," the first song Hubbard ever co-wrote with a woman.
- "So that's what a smattering sounds like," Hubbard quipped, after a few crackles of applause followed one of his stories.
- "The only prayer I know is, 'God, if you get me out of this, I swear I'll never do it again,'" Hubbard explained, making an apt introduction to "Conversations with the Devil."
So one doesn't go to watch Hubbard play music as much to stew in his aura, to soak up the wisdom that seems to drip out of songs like "Mother Blues," "Drunken Poet's Dream," or "Corcidin Bottle." This is a country singer who quotes the German poet Rilke between songs, who explains how a book of decadent French poetry inspired him to write a tune about a deceased country musician friend named Mambo John. Oh, he writes about whiskey bottles and stripper girlfriends and gold-top Les Pauls, too, but only on the way a point far more profound than the dumb pleasure of drinkin' a six-pack by the lake.
He also wrestles a lot with the tension between goodness and desire. Tellingly, Hubbard has at least two songs about ending up in hell and trying to talk his way out, the earlier of which, "Conversations with the Devil," contains too many great lines not to excerpt:
I said, "Oh man, wait a minute there's gotta be something wrong
I ain't a bad guy, I just write these little songs
I always pay my union dues, I don't stay in the passing lane"
And he said, "What about all the whiskey and cocaine?"
I said, "Well, yeah, but that's no reason to throw me in Hell
'Cause I didn't use the cocaine to get high
I just liked the way it smelled."
He said, "Come on over here son, let me show you around
Over there's where we put the preachers, I never liked those clowns
They're always blaming me for everything wrong under the sun
It ain't that harder to do what's right, it's just maybe not as much fun
Then they walk around thinking they're better than me and you
And then they get caught in a motel room
Doing what they said not to do"
Next to lyrics like that, "Redneck Mother" comes across like a sloppy jukebox favorite -- which is probably why the crowd wanted to hear it. Hubbard doesn't write many down-the-center-of-home-plate country anthems anymore, but that chorus of "He's 34 and drinkin' in some honky tonk/ Kickin' hippies asses' and raisin' hell" is pretty much irresistible shoutalong bait. Naturally, then, Hubbard made his audience carry it alone for a few bars last night. And after the singing started to flag, Hubbard suggested we take the money would have spent on one of his CDs and instead buy a metronome and a tuning fork. It must've been his way of getting us back.
Crowd report: First cowboy hat sightings at an S.F. show in a long while. One of the hatted few turned to a woman behind him and asked, in a drawl, "Can you see, darlin'?" and offered to take off the hat.
Blues jam: Hubbard's lyrics and persona stole the show, but the man pulled together some great country blues jams, with his son contributing warm, fat solo lines. "Wanna Rock 'n' Roll" eventually morphed into a fevered take on the traditional "John the Revelator." And the band closed with a perfectly drawling "You Gotta Move," with Hubbard on slide guitar and opener Elliot Randall contributing vocals. With all the wordiness of the previous 90 minutes, watching Hubbard sit back and drizzle out a bare-bones slide rhythm reminded us just how talented this guy is.
Opener: Elliot Randall's quiet set was almost like country slowcore. He quipped that his grandpa told him he'd have a better time getting on TV if all his songs weren't so depressing -- but then, "Grace" was already used for TV. Randall tried for that quintessential male country vocal tone, but he needed a bit more swagger last night to pull it off.
Another great mocking Hubbard line: "We hit it off like a metaphor" (from "Mother Blues" off his excellent new album, The Grifter's Hymnal.)
Ray Wylie Hubbard Setlist:
2. Snake Farm
3. Drunken Poet's Dream
4. Name Droppin'
5. Train Yard
6. Count my Blessings
7. Ballad of the Crimson Kings
8. Conversations with the Devil
9. Mother Blues
10. Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother
11. Wanna Rock 'n' Roll (John the Revelator)
12. The Messenger
13. Coricidin Bottle
14. You Gotta Move (with Elliot Randall)