"Buy a fucking CD, motherfucker!": that's the Willowz's noisy closing to their set, petulant and fussy, like good teenage rock & roll should be. Fort Collins, Colorado's country-rock pride Drag the River was next, climbing onstage, looking roughly like half-heshers, half-Elvis-Costellos. Singer/guitarist Chad Price started strumming all by himself, and then singer/guitarist Jon Snodgrass and the rest of the band jumped in, and the hootenanny was set. With longtime pedal-steel and electric guitar player Zach Boddicker recently departed, band buddy (and sometime sideman) Chad Rex was in on electric—that took away some authenticity (like purists would call Drag the River real country anyway) but gave them the kick in the ass twenty- and thirtysomethings raised on FM radio crave. Rex's Bob Stinson-esque leads and vibrato twang played perfect counterpoint to the bright double acoustic guitars and twin voices of Snodgrass and Price.
With the country harmonies, showboat rock drumming and bassist JJ Nobody's stomps punctuating the breaks, Drag blazed right through genre conventions. But it wasn't all barnburners: the band seeded the set with slower songs to rein in the cowboy hats in the crowd, and Price often sang with his eyes closed—maybe to concentrate, maybe out of shyness, but either way not just a pose. It verified what we've always suspected: country music is white soul.
Still, it was the upbeat songs that worked best for us. As Price sang, "She brings me happiness in a bottle/makes life easier to swallow"—in the darkness, we wanted to believe. The traffic laws screamed, "DON'T DRINK!" but Drag the River cried, "YOU MUST!" At one point, Snodgrass blurted out, "We love this place!"
With sound almost too good for a room this size and a boisterous-but-behaved crowd seemingly all there for his band, we couldn't blame him. The front line of faithful danced and sang along—Drag the River as Bob Dylan to at least 10 people Saturday night at the strip mall. They finished things with "Get Drunk": country 101, but an archetype beloved since the days of Hank for a reason.
Last: Helmut Stein Experience. A cabaret/lounge/blues band following a garage punk band and country rock band? Weird is good. HSX (as we've decided to dub them) looked like the lounge version of a pickup game of basketball at the local park: old dudes, young dudes, one chanteuse. One particularly grooving soul song was almost ruined by too-upfront keys—kind of airport-Holiday-Inn, but the strength of the song pushed it through. The singer's pissed-off stage presence was a nice compliment to the band's musicianship, but then it happened. Argh: scat singing. Capable of ruining the best Duke Ellington song. So we left.