Poor Man’s Whiskey | 01.31.09 | S.F.

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller

Poor Man’s Whiskey :: 01.31.09 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA

PMW :: 01.31.09 :: S.F.
Sometimes the best things are growing in our backyard and we don’t even know it. For example, during a summer break in my college years I rented a house next to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. An overgrown hippie garden in our yard had dying tomato plants and tall, crispy cornstalks, all of which we ignored for three months. Our last week there we set to clearing the brush and discovered five robustly mature Cannabis sativa plants nestled within the sad maize – we’d always chalked the smell up to the myriad barefoot deadbeats blazing on our street. Moral is don’t overlook the goodies thriving in your own garden.

Case in point, Poor Man’s Whiskey has been throwing down musky roots music in the S.F. region since the early 2000s but only recently have more folks started to pick up their scent – a heady, good time inducing distillation of slap-fiddle country, funny-as-fuck punk, sincere metal and bloody fingered bluegrass. While their core Bay Area following is strong, 2009 may be the year they bust out of the region and into the national and festival circuits, and the reason I think that is show’s like this one at Great American – a fitting a spot for such freewheelin’ rebels souls, just the sort we need to keep the Tree of Liberty well nourished.

Watching them whip folks into a happy frenzy, offering up increasingly well honed originals and smile bombs like an absolutely primo “China Cat/I Know You Rider,” I found myself very struck by their Wild West spirit, a crazed drive and lawless charm that syncs up with long ago saloon and gunslinger days. It’s a vibe other bands have exuded (think back to Garcia and his gang in dusty leather cowboy jackets in early ’70s or Henley & Frey down on the border) but rarely with such barely-holding-the-reins character. I’m pretty sure they know what they’re doing at all times but it often feels as if we’re riding a unruly nag along a narrow mountain trail and the whole damn beast might drop out from under us at any minute. It’s exciting to be part of, and much like last year’s Dark Side of the Moonshine show (see JamBase’s review HERE), this year’s Pimpin’ Ho Down had a strong sense of overarching entertainment, a full evening of amusements kicked off by well-chosen openers Flowmotion and Huckle.

Huckle :: 01.31.09 :: S.F.
Seated alone with a lap steel guitar across his thighs, Huckle, a new solo alter-ego for PMW’s Eli Jebediah, let out a howl and then commenced to slappin’ bare feet against hard wood, stirring up crossroad ghosts, modern scramblers like Jon Spencer & Dan Auerbach, and folk-stretcher extraordinaire John Hartford. Pulling evil truth from an electric banjo, he cried, “How can you claim God’s will to justify the blood you spill?” There was a righteous but not preachy undercurrent to some pieces, and once a rhythm section joined in, a good deal of roadhouse rightness, too. The band, dubbed The Berries, added heft, though he hardly needed much more given the solidity of this live debut. The songs are already right there – ranging from hotfooted jump blues to incredibly soft-spoken material – and his reworking of Jimi Hendrix, “Hillbilly Chile (A Slight Return)” indicates good cover tune instincts. He was joined on the Hendrix revamp by Flowmotion guitarist RL Heyer who seared his brand on the bucking interpretation with a pleasant lack of delicacy. Sometimes rough is right and Heyer seized on the moment with real clarity and snap, as he would do continually in his own band’s set. Without hyperbole, Heyer reminded me SO much of the first time I saw Marc Ford play with the Crowes that it made me shiver. His style is inescapably powerful and immediate, the kind of feel that lifts everyone’s game up around him.

Huck and his Berries swiftly hopped offstage as Flowmotion took off without a second’s pause. This was indicative of the night’s flow, where a breathless current carried everyone towards a shared horizon. While the ultimate destination wasn’t always clear, every musician at the Ho Down helped paddle us further along. It’s no small thing to bring a mass of people together and actually create a communal experience, and this lineup all did their part. To wit, the BIG energy start to Flowmotion’s set, which played out like a lesser band’s festival encore and carried all the Hendrix-y build-up into their music. This is primo melodic rock grounded in rhythms that draw from Latin rock and juke joint blues to create expansive, dexterous groove music with hair on its chest and a quick step. This Seattle band has garnered a large, fervent following in the Pacific Northwest (including their annual Summer Meltdown Festival), and there’s gleeful rock gusto to what they do, and much like PMW, they seem ripe for wider discovery. On some surface level, I can see Phish lovers falling for Flowmotion, though lead singer-guitarist Josh Clauson is a stronger, more passionate singer than anyone in that famous quartet. This set ebbed and flowed from balls-out chargers to quite tender ballads, different sections showing Southern rock, Pink Floyd and other classic FM radio influences given a morphing, graceful turn of their own. High energy, charismatic performers and excellent, limber musicians, Flowmotion deserve an audience well beyond Washington State.

R.L. Heyer :: Flowmotion :: 01.31.09 :: S.F.
I was in the basement green room when Poor Man’s Whiskey began, their stomping arrival announced by the hypnotically shaking light fixtures overhead. Some bands seduce, others grip you by the scruff and plant a wet one on you. PMW is the latter sort, reaching out a hand so friendly that to refuse it seems downright mean. I’ve noted this with other Bay Area groups, notably Tea Leaf Green, but charm should never be discounted, and PMW overflows with a scruffy variety that makes one spill their drink and do bumps with someone’s granny. Outside of some fairly effective shtick, PMW isn’t all that Hee-Haw despite their love of all things cornpone and bawdy. The video screens above the stage showing found nifty footage and liquid light blurs suggested strange depths, which their music increasingly reveals (check out “Death Valley Ass” on their MySpace Page for a swell example, an odd yet effective merger of humorous, double entendre honky tonk and psychedelic mores). Each time I see them things have grown just a bit thicker – instrumentally, lyrically, jam-wise – and the intensity on their faces at points during this show suggests they’re only going to keep on thickenin’.

PMW :: 01.31.09 :: S.F.
What further elevated their set was an impeccable sense of pacing, where another inspired reworking (this time the Allman’s “Whipping Post” turned into “Whiskey Post,” which had hints of Zappa’s brilliant version) gave way to a crowd sing-along take on Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel” and that into a Batucada freak jam that had musicians from every corner leaping up to join in. There’s something about PMW that inspires players, really good players in fact, to get some skin in the game. One sees the same thing with Galactic and Akron/Family, where the energies they stir up grab musicians and draw something fine (or new or peculiar) from them. Amongst this night’s guest assortment were violin/mandolin sharp Zac Matthews (ex-Hot Buttered Rum) and guitarist James Nash (The Waybacks), as well as excellent contributions from the Flowmotion crew. Regardless of the specific tune, one generally felt something genuine and strong coming into being as these cats threw what they had into their bubbling stewpot.

It’s evenings like this where the music stretches and pushes us with such winning force and honest, empathetic understanding that should remind us to peek in our own yard. Even as the big names take to the road this year, there are small miracles like Huckle, Flowmotion and Poor Man’s Whiskey awaiting us right where we live. Follow the scent and you won’t be sorry.

PMW next performs this Friday, February 20 at the Blue Lamp in Sacramento, CA. Find full Poor Man’s tour dates here. Flowmotion’s next gig is a Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras shindig on February 24 at Nectar Lounge in Seattle. A complete list of Flowmotion dates can be found HERE. Huckle will emerge again when his stash of homebrew runs out…

Continue reading for more pics of the Pimpin’ Ho Down…


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