Poor Man's Whiskey | 01.11.08 | SF

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand

Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11.08 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA

Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11.08
One knew with certainty that Auntie Em's farm was WAY behind us when the Wicked Witch of the East started throwing Devil Fingers (trademark Ronnie James Dio) during a fantastic revamp of Pink Floyd's "Money," libatiously shifted from the cash register to the inside of a whiskey bottle. Northern California's Poor Man's Whiskey created a delightful maelstrom of costumes, classic rock and top flight pickin' at San Francisco's hallowed Great American Music Hall. More than a mere concert, this was a real experience - a unique, joyous moment unfolding in stereo. Built around the centerpiece of a smart, colorful, twangy subversion of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (renamed Dark Side of the Moonshine), PMW dotted the I's and crossed the T's to create a thoroughly grand night on the town that confounded expectations.

Ostensibly a string/bluegrass band, Poor Man's Whiskey are really beautiful descendents of talented, demented hicks like Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show and the Sir Douglas Quintet. Sure there's mandolin (Jason Beard), banjo (Josh Brough), fiddle (Chris Rovetti), acoustic guitar (Gary Neargarder) and dobro (Eli Jebidiah) up front but the whole shebang is fueled by the hard slappin' rhythm section of Joshua Zucker (bass) and George Smeltz (drums). With this pair driving the backline, Poor Man's hews closer to English folk-rock gems like Fairport Convention and Pentangle than Yonder Mountain or most contemporary string acts. As good as they'd been at past performances, this night exhibited a collective confidence that gave the music a breathless rush and smiling halo that was nigh impossible to resist. And shit howdy, why would you turn away from guys so obviously looking to plant a sonic kiss on your forehead?

Aaron Redner - HBR w/ Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11
The Moonshine set was surrounded by two sets of original material and more traditional fare like Peter Rowan's "Midnight Moonlight" and Django Reinhardt's "Minor Swing." A nifty program (yeah, like in a real theatre presentation!) with a map of Oz and Cast of Characters designated Act 1 as "The Farm," where "Dorothy and friends blow off their farm chores and decide to have a hoedown." Act 2 was Dark Side of the Moonshine, where "Pink Floyd goes bluegrass on the third lion's roar in the land of Oz," and Act 3 was a "Party at the Wizard's Castle" that announced, "Screw Kansas, let's stay and party at the Wizard's castle. There's no place like Oz, there's no place like Oz, there's no place like Oz..." From the band to the cheap seats, Wizard of Oz characters roamed with frosty beer bottles and smoldering joints, and the attention to detail and general free form freakiness made most folks grin broadly. It's quite a sight to catch a barely legal Dorothy bending over as she invites the Cowardly Lion to work up more than his courage. And be aware, not all the Dorothys were gals. Neargarder's Dorothy and Eli Jebidiah's Wicked Witch both smacked of quality Monty Python housewifery.

The evening began with a mood that suggested the Ozark Mountain Daredevils covering "Scarlet Begonias." Within minutes one felt lifted up, jostled around in a cardboard biplane soaring over cornfields. There was little showy about their playing, and while the solos were darn good they seemed focused on serving the songs first and their egos second. It didn't take long for their special guests to hop onboard, with The Waybacks' Warren Hood (fiddle, mandolin) and James Nash (guitar, mandolin) and Hot Buttered Rum's Nat Keefe (guitar) and Aaron Redner (fiddle) popping up like some hayseed Whack-a-Mole game all evening, often in a fresh outfit and always ready to lend a hand to the swaying voyage. Like PMW, these guests played expertly but rarely drew undue attention, throwing their imagination behind the material in a generous, buoyant display. It's REALLY easy to over-pick. Bluegrass is a naturally exhibitionist genre but something about the greasepaint and floppy hats seemed to circumvent many of the usual string band clichés.

Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11.08
The lazers (their spelling) didn't hurt either. "Banjos and lazers! I never thought I'd see the day," exclaimed Brough as the pair of overhead lasers danced through the exhaled smoke and bar breath to create shifting cumulus above our heads. Periodically, the beams would spell the band's name on the rear wall or splinter into a '80s video game explosion. It reminded me of the first Pink Floyd reunion tour without Roger Waters, and that's meant as a total compliment. Nice value added effect, dudes! As for their song-for-song assault on Pink Floyd's bedroom bong rip classic, well, what could have been a silly gimmick – dressing up Waters, Gilmour, et al. in coveralls – turned out to be a slow growing surprise. They hit their stride on "Time" and never missed a step afterwards. "Time" was enriched by a violin solo from HBR's Redner that evoked Stéphane Grappelli and longtime Ellington foil Ray Nance at their most tender.

The music kept growing and shifting in an engaging way but there was also the sheer brain itching spectacle of the Tin Man fiddling like a maniac or the Scarecrow abusing a banjo while singing words that are integral and hugely personal to several generations. One felt caught up in a Technicolor live action version of those old black and white Fleischer cartoons, the ones where furniture dances a jig, fruit talks back to you and animals are anything but domesticated. It was wondrously strange, and though relatively clear headed, it made me think Dark Side of the Moonshine could be an ideal setting to revive the Merry Prankster's Acid Tests. Oh where is the 21st century Stanley Owsley?

The non-Floyd sets rambled through Merle Travis style country, Pogues level glass lifters, quietly sophisticated hot jazz and a lot more. Their slippery genre sensibility operated not just tune-to-tune but within each piece. A jittery restlessness flowed like ground water beneath their playing, the radio dial inside their heads twisting through frequencies with alarming speed. It's fun as hell and you rarely knew where they were taking you. Poor Man's Whiskey has found a niche for themselves in a field that's often painfully samey, and if they keep coming up with hugely entertaining ideas like this performance then their audience is going to be more than Munchkin sized before long.

JamBase | Emerald Kingdom
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[Published on: 1/18/08]

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Chaloupka starstarstar Fri 1/18/2008 05:41PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Never heard of these guys, but I'm interested.

MoeString Fri 1/18/2008 09:54PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


very good article, i wanna hear this show anyone know where i can get it?

snappy Sat 1/19/2008 05:40AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Here's an earlier performance of Dark Side of the Moonshine:


ShugaD starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/19/2008 07:36AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Whiskey or Money...what a choice. We saw them test out this show last summer (was great then): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPcW8yf9GaA and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCT2ldx2RWU

Sounds like they've taken it to a place well beyond. Hope PMW brings the Dark Side home to Pink's land. The roundhouse in London would be a nice venue, hint hint guys!

FreeHawk Sat 1/19/2008 02:30PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Nice well written review.Really looks interesting and fun.nice reference to Dr Hook & The Medicine Show. One of my fav bands as a kid.A little fact about Dr. Hook for everyone is that Shel Silverstein wrote all their tunes.Now im really excited for Bobby Bare Jr's new album about Shel.

freverdead Sat 1/19/2008 06:49PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I was there and it was simply amazing.

nuke_ticketbastard starstarstarstar Mon 1/21/2008 07:33AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

wow sounds like FUN !

fordaj starstarstarstarstar Mon 1/21/2008 10:12AM
Show -4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
Cheezefreek starstarstarstar Mon 1/21/2008 12:47PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


if it sounds like a poor mans shit band.... then why even comment at all . why don't you try seein them live before you start flappin your gums

feelin good13 Mon 1/21/2008 01:53PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Looks like a good time to me

Tony8 Tue 1/22/2008 10:29AM
Show -3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
babcock18 starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/22/2008 02:51PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Tony, much like orchestras still cover behtoven (spelling?) I believe folks will cover Dark Side of the Moon for centuries. Just an opinion obviously

merrymona starstarstarstarstar Mon 8/4/2008 07:45AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Look for this show on tour this fall all along the west coast!