Monday, August 17, 2009
On The Road with Gal Holiday and The Honky Tonk Revue
After three sets of country in two days, I felt raw. These tales of woe, especially the ballads, were getting to me. I stood on the side of the stage as Gal Holiday and The Honky Tonk Revue played their second set of the Natchitoches Folk Festival on Saturday, July 18th. I was tagging along with the local country cover band for their weekend journey into the hills of Louisiana, and I was starting to fall in love with their songs. When the tempo slowed and the focus went to the voice of Vanessa Niemann(a.k.a. Gal Holiday), she dazzled. Anyone can have a great voice, but that's not the point. Niemann infused hers with real emotion, real hurt, like she was conjuring something universal from wherever they kept the lost souls.
"I select songs based on my passion for them and my life experience and whether they fit my voice," Niemann said during a recent interview. "I'm singing my story through characters. If a song sounds killer with my voice, it's more likely we'll perform it."
The heart-wrenching didn't end with Niemann. During a ballad solo, guitarist Dave James hit me with a beautifully minimal, winsome performance, the kind where every note hurts to hear. A beautiful malady that made my heart heavy, but in a good way. The band was so tight they sounded like a recording, commissioning couples to ballroom dance and fill the floor inside Northwestern State University's Prather Coliseum. The group was like a machine but not quite--almost perfect.
Along with classic country, The Honky Tonk Revue covers rockabilly and western swing. Typical sets include songs from Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Merle Haggard, to name a few. Last month in between sets at The Circle Bar Niemann asked if I wanted to travel with the group to Leesville and then up to Natchitoches. All I could think was, "Rock and roll road trip!" I needed to get out the city, and I figured hanging with the band would be fun and that maybe something interesting would happen. I couldn't have imagined it would entail hip hop line dancing in Leesville.
After meeting up with Niemann and bassist Dave Brouillette at drummer James Clark's house at noon on Friday in New Orleans, we took off in Brouillette's white prison van, metal grates still covering the side windows(guitarist Dave James and fiddler Clyde Thompson took seperate cars). There's something very appropiate about travelling down the highway in a prison van with a country band. Country music played on the stereo as I sat in the back and talked with Clark about John Cage, the destruction of ego in songwriting, prepared piano, and drummer JoJo Mayer's popular DVD, Secret Weapons for The Modern Drummer. Clark later read his Anne Rice novel while I took in what little scenery there was: pastures and corn fields.
After a five hour drive, we pulled into Leesville, which is 50 miles west of Alexandria and the home of Fort Polk. When the band played at The Sugar Shack later that night, they were actually just south in New Llano, LA, a sleazy, dilapidated stretch of highway that offered Daiquiri "specialists" and a strip club. I cringe at what the girls in that place must look like.
Before hitting the motel, the full band met up inside Big Dog Country KVVP for an interview with Rik Barnickle. Rik is a large, gregarious fellow, the kind of man who was born to play Santa Claus at Christmas. Since he comped the band's dinner and motel cost and drinks, Rik was a very real reason they came to town. Rik saw Gal Holiday a few years back, and ever since he had been trying to get them into Leesville. He played the group's music the week leading up to the show and was also giving away Gal Holiday t-shirts over the air.
The band walked into The Sugar Shack around 7:30 to setup for their 9-1 a.m. gig. The venue's about the size of The Howlin' Wolf, with Nascar hoods and driver portraits on the walls and tiny stock car lights hanging over the pool tables. About one out of every four men there sported cowboy hats, and almost everyone was fairly unattractive. Not super ugly or a scary, disorienting mixture of backwoods funk a la Ponchatoula's Strawberry Fest. No, these people ran together. They just seemed like they were the bottom of the food chain, like anyone who was attractive in Leesville left long ago for greener pastures.
After the band's first song, Vanessa gave a history and told a story about the upcoming song, an ingenious ice-breaker that she'd use throughout the set to keep connecting with the audience. She has experience with that. As a child, Vanessa wanted to be an actress, and she even went so far as to go to a magnet school for acting. It was only after she realized she could incorporate her acting talents into a singing performance that she started to devote more and more of her creative time to music.
"Onstage I'm performing. I'm playing a character," Niemann said.
Niemann is direct, biting, witty, and businesslike. Gal Holiday, on the other hand, is all earnest, welcoming smile, posture and presentation, a vision of country that's reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon's take on June Carter Cash. Speaking of Carter Cash, the crux of every Gal Holiday performance and the song in which she puts her acting skills to best use is her duet with Dave James on "Jackson," originally performed by Johnny Cash and June. Niemann and James become the bickering couple, James singing low and Niemann hamming it up and striking poses.
"Gal Holiday is a fixed persona because I want them to be more than just cover songs," Niemann said. "I want it to be a show, and I don't want the fact that we're a cover band to overshadow the intense musicianship in this band."
The best example of formal musicianship in The Revue is Brouillette, who studied upright bass at Northwestern and was close to getting his music degree before he felt the need to get the hell out of Natchitoches. When it comes to solos, Brouillette impresses more than anyone else in the band. His speed and his flamming on his gut strings made a hardcore, cowboy hat wearin', tobacco-chewin' dude at The Sugar Shack say, "Now that's what I'm talkin' bout!" It's fun to watch Dave James look at Brouillette in appreciation and a bit of wonder, time after time, like he's never seen it before. Dave James is a pretty awesome player himself, a man who could solo all day, a man who makes me scared of his ability. It's like the music flows through him, like he's made himself such a conduit that he doesn't even have to think about what he's gonna do next--it just happens. The band member that plays with the least fat is Clark. He plays only what the song needs, nothing more. Barely any fills. He performs each song the same way gig after gig, laying out a solid map the rest of the players can follow and subsequently get tighter off of. Next time you see the band, check out his huge, ridiculous pocket. It would take a lot to get him off his beat. Last but not least there's Clyde Thompson on fiddle, a wonderful complementer who's such a silent force that when he plays rhythm on songs that weren't recorded with a fiddle, you don't realize it until later.
During the first set Rik sat down next to me and said, "Watch out for The Vietnamese girl in black. She hustles the G.I.'s and she'll take you for it." This was a sizeable, tough, possibly confused crowd that was more used to contemporary country bands. Dancing was minimal. I felt like they sat back and judged the band, not feeling pushed at all to get into the music. As long as they were with friend and drinking and playing pool, well, the music was secondary. The applause was minimal between songs. They livened up real quick, though, and started line dancing on the wooden, newly buffed floor when the DJ played between sets. I stared in amazement when people started performing a pre-approved line dance to a hip hop tune that was popular a few years back. As if they thought, "Oh, it's that song, and this is the way we dance to that song." Pretty much the most surreal and disorienting moment of the trip.
During the second set the Revue performed one of two originals, "Blue Ridge Baby," a song about Niemann's rural roots in the mountains of Western Maryland, where bluegrass and folk music was everywhere. As a child Niemann got into rockabilly and only later progressed into country. Her parents were into old country and the type of music Gal Holiday performs, but at the time she thought of country as the contemporary stuff she heard on the radio. She went to barn dances and folk festivals--exactly the kind they hold in Natchitoches.
The drive up to Louisiana's oldest town the next day was beautiful. The sloping hills, the thin tall trees. The first set of the day was a test for the band. This was an older, more family-oriented crowd not known for their acceptance of rockabilly in their country. Vanessa's tattoos probably weren't helping, either. The Revue acquiesced a bit by taking "Cocaine Blues" out of their sets, but ultimately they didn't change their approach. Their first song was an up-tempo barn burner full of solos that left one woman with arms folded and a complete look of horror. But, as the set progressed, many took to the dancefloor, and by the end of the set, a sizeable crowd had gathered behind those seated.
People is Natchitoches are pretty serious about their crafts. There was a guy making violins at the craft fair. Making. Violins. Let that sink in. After I read through his illustrated guide to making a violin, I was thoroughly impressed and amazed at how many different things can go wrong during the process. One woman was selling lye soap and giving out her recipe, while others were making baskets and spooling wool to make shirts. The best was the family dyeing eggs with successive patterns before adding minute detail with a tiny, heated utensil tipped with ink.
Between the Revue's first and second sets, I took a moment for myself and sat under a oak tree on the edge of Chaplin Lake. The greenery rustled with the wind, and after I calmed myself, the speed of the river flow seemed to coincide with Radiohead's "Pyramid Song." I drifted and I felt alright.