Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11.08 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA
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.
| Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11.08|
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?
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.
| Aaron Redner - HBR w/ Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11|
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.
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.
| Poor Man's Whiskey :: 01.11.08|
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.
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