Williams took the stage at 8:45 p.m., backed by his hillbilly band and staring into a packed house of Orange County fans, liquored up and looking to boogie, or else pound each other in a pit that was ignited by the first drum blasts of "Nighttime Ramblin' Man." A waft of pot filled the air three songs into the set, as Williams and his band tore into "Smoke & Wine," where the long and lanky-framed hellraiser boasts of "lookin' for that gal, about five-foot-ten" and taking her "down that road of livin' a life of sin."
When Williams launched into "Trashville"--a fiery fuck-you to pop country and its emasculation of the music handed down to him by his grandfather--inked arms and fists full of Pabst stabbed upward as the entire crowd sang along: "'Cause they killed it ya see." It was an extraordinary scene to take in: Orange County wannabe rednecks who've never picked a muscadine or caught a crawdad, following their real-deal hillbilly messiah on a two-lane musical highway filled with two-bit whores and moonshine mirages.
And that's no knock on the rabid OC fans who chanted damn-near every line to every song in Williams' roughly two-hour set of country music. Here's hoping they are as zealous in spreading the Hank III gospel as they were in cutting a rug and bashing into one another at his show. More people need to hear him. But they, sporting the 21st Century costume of the unruly--beards, flat-bill ball caps and tattoos that stopped scaring people sometime around 1991--only seemed to amplify, by contrast, what makes Williams a sight to behold and a delight to hear: the man is unaffected.
Whether it be his countrified gait, his stiff and sideways lean into the microphone, or how he shakes his head like a bulldog on a bone, Williams is Williams and no one else. His clenched jaw and startling glare weren't learned by watching music videos; they were earned by a hard-ass way of living up to his pedigree and swimming in Southern gutters. And that honky-tonk whine of his--God-given and devil-blessed--whips at the ears like a cat o' nine tails. If you don't like his 100-proof persona, well, as Williams himself wailed, hey man, go fuck you.
All that said, Williams, who eschewed pre-song niceties for the most part, said, "Tell ya what, it's startin' to look like an outlaw convention."
He was backed by a band that featured a butt-thumping rhythm section with an upright bass, a lightning-quick banjo player, lonely slide and steel guitars, and a fiddle player who, in a previous life, shredded his bow while Rome burned. After the devil went down to Georgia, he took the 10 West and ended up at the Observatory. It was a terrifying and beautiful sound that cut the soul like a straight razor to the jugular vein. Round after round of gittin'-after-it jams were bridged by slower ditties like "Country Heroes" and "D Ray White," and the fat-bellied boys in the pit looked grateful as the mosh slowed to a convivial milling about.
After the hillbilly set, Williams launched into a little bit of punk and a whole lot metal, the latter with him playing electric guitar and backed by drums. It sounded like Eyehategod got possessed by Les Claypool's voice and Tony Iommi's guitar.
The Observatory started to clear out, and by the time Williams finished, the venue was a third full. The goobers in their Farmer John garb apparently didn't think the look worked while listening to metal, and their outlaw cards were pulled as they deferred to their cutesy rockabilly girlfriends, who earlier in the night looked like they wanted to blow Williams on the spot, but scurried when he stood in near total darkness and howled at whatever demon haunted him. Those who stayed paid the proper respect to a man whose bloodline is that of country music kings.
Overheard in the Crowd: "You won't hear this on Top 40 radio."
Random Notebook Dump: There should be only one mustache in any group of friends. Two guys with the same mustache, walking side-by-side is dorky.
Setlist: 3,472 really cool songs that I stopped writing down after about No. 35.