Denver's tiny Bluebird Theater was almost too small to hold the big sounds of Shaw Wilson's meaty drums and Chuck Mead's playboy drawl last Saturday night. BR549, a vintage country swing and rockabilly band from Tennessee, lived up to their rowdy reputation as they revved the crowd into a frenzy with their gear-banging lyrics and infectious rhythms.
Singer and acoustic guitarist Gary Bennett was in fine form, singing his heart out on "The Game." The song, an original that was almost left off of BRs latest album, This is BR549, has proven to be one of the band finest and most mature recordings, but even the studio version does not equal the beauty of the song live. Bennett also shined during "A Little Good News," an old Anne Murray hit the band has recently received a lot of flak for covering. But live, Bennett's soulful countrified tenor drips with emotion, giving the sappy song much-needed cred.
Chuck Mead, electric guitar player and vocalist, rocked the audience, opening with "Georgia on a Fast Train" and belting out "Cocaine Blues" early on, solidifying the band's intent to cause a little trouble and shake a few asses. As the crowd got drunk, the boys egged them on with "18 Wheels and Crowbar" and the old Moon Mullican romp, "Cherokee Boogie." At Shaw Wilson's urging, several dancers took off their pumps and got ready to jump, swinging and twisting to "Look Me Up" and "Tell Me Mama," two raucous songs heavy on the electric screams and bouncing rhythms. With BR's Jay McDowell beating away on his stand-up bass, those two songs could get a mortuary up and jitterbugging.
Don Herron, BR's jack-of-all-instruments, gave an impressive performance, shining on pedal steel and fiddle. No matter the song, no matter the scale, Herron can pick, strum or slide the tune right into your belly, where it moves your feet from the inside out. A man has to sell his soul to the Devil for talent like that, but Herron's devotion to sharing his skills will surely earn his way into honky tonk heaven.
The boys take requests, and the bills in the tip jar brought forth a "Price of Love." One audience member, a good-time Bettie girl with more than a few rum & cokes already down the hatch, screamed for "Little Ramona," one of BR549's most popular songs about a one-time punk gone "hillbilly nuts." At the woman's second or third request Bennett explained that the song would be one of the last played, but that didn't satisfy the hepped up dancer. She decided to flash the band as an inducement to play her song. Off went the bra, up went the shirt, and Herron's face went red. Mead gave Bennett a "get-a-load-a-this" look, and when the girl threw her bra into the tip jar, Wilson grinned from behind the drums. With still no "Ramona", the woman retrieved the bra and threw it Bennett, where it caught on his right hand. Without missing a note he shook it off, and gave the girl a pleading look.
But what is he going to do? He performs in a band that is so good, so tight, and so energetic that audience members will do anything to hear him play, even offering up their dainties. In the end, Bennett and Mead just grinned and played "Little Ramona" as the encore, and it got the reception it deserves. Amidst hoots, hollers and yeehaws, the boys raised beads of sweat to everyone's brow one more time before jumping on a big black bus and speeding off into the night, already thinking of the hell they'll raise in the next anxious, grateful little town.