Next year they ought to ban lawn chairs from WestFest. Combined with the heat, that cheap furniture kept the crowd from becoming what in any air-conditioned club would have been a kickin hillbilly mosh pit.
BR549 made their first appearance in Colorado Springs last Saturday, braving the blazing sun to play their little honky-tonk hearts out. Just barely into Georgia on a Fast Train, Smilin Jay McDowell began to manhandle his upright bass, twisting it backwards, laying it down, spinning it almost off the side of the outdoor stage. He beat the rhythm out of the instrument, propelling the already fast, classic song while singer and guitarist Chuck Mead tossed his blonde hair and drawled.
All this and still the crowd sat fanning themselves with paper fans and tapping their feet, bouncing up and down on the woven seats. But no one got up to dance, an unbelievable expression of either laziness or the inability to hear, because it surely was not this amazing, kinetic music.
BR549 was the first really rowdy band to perform at this years WestFest, having been preceded by the likes of Cowboy Celtic and Michael Martin Murphy. They faced the steep challenge of convincing a Colorado Springs crowd that yes, it is alright to dance, and no, the devil is not making you do it. With drummer Shaw Wilsons first big beats of the popular Cherokee Boogie the crowd shimmied and jiggled even more frenetically, but it wasnt until two girls took the first uninhibited steps onto the Alamo Square dance floor that people finally began to risk public embarrassment and show off their moves. A few couples two-stepped, a few more tried unsuccessfully to line dance, but the floor truly belonged to an elderly man and woman who knew how to move to this kind of vintage swing. In their prime the couple doubtlessly jitterbugged, flipped and twisted all over the place, saddle shoes and hairpins flying, but now in their twilight years they sweetly shuffled, holding each other close and tight.
The boys played a simple, beautiful, uneventful Hickory Wind for couples only, and then launched into Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal, the first single from their new album, This is BR549. Gary Bennett's steady rhythm guitar and Wilson's tumbling, crashing percussion supported string man Don Herron's pitch-perfect steel moans while Mead's cocky voice filled the corner stage, bellowing out over the lawn. He strummed his handsome green Gibson and grinned a roguish grin, flawlessly assuming the role of Country & Western heartthrob.
Psychic Lady showcased the bands preference for simple, old-fashioned Western dancehall swing. Though Bennett's rich, clear hangdog tenor lent tongue-in-cheek gravity to the wry lyrics, Herron's fluttering fiddle was king of the song, gently applying melody to Wilson's subtle, constant percussion. The older couple hung with it, but during Psychic Lady and the following A Little Good News Today, even the most enthusiastic dancers had to sit one out, reclining on the bales of hay surrounding the dancefloor.
Little Ramona got everybody back up to dance hard, a strategic move. The satisfaction of getting people to swing in that midday sun was apparent in Mead's energetic voice and boisterous lead guitar. McDowell was still staying true to form the tall black satin-clad figure jerked like a rag doll and violently massaged his bass while Wilson drummed along with an absorbed, resolute expression. Only Bennett looked a bit peaked in the heat, but still he provided his reliable, right-on-time rhythm to the story of the little punk who traded in her Docs for kicker boots and went hillbilly nuts.
The crown jewel of the set, hands-down, was a cover of Johnny Cash's Cocaine Blues. While nobody can copy Cash's restless, incendiary Folsom Prison performance of the song, BR created their own brand of riotous musical outrage, Bennett's guitar lending a driving, locomotive sound. Mead gave his most hyperactive performance of the day, sweating and cringing with his own deep growls and belly-deep exclamations. Wilson and McDowell shone throughout the short song, delivering the pulsating percussion that Cocaine Blues needs to burn.
The tight WestFest schedule did not allow for encores, so BR549 made up for filling their short set with slower songs by ending with a loud, urgent Six Days on the Road. By the end of the song, the crowd had defied the oppressive heat and peeled themselves from their chairs to give BR549 a standing ovation. Even those too shy or to dance whooped and hollered, begging for just one more.
The BR boys made a big impression their first time through town, and they've got a foot in the door permanent-like. This winter there'll be no excuse to sit still, and if BR549 needs a crowd to warm up, they're welcome back anytime. And this time, no lawn chairs.