photos by Jimmy Faber
There’s something relaxed and comfortable about Hayes Carll, so that listening to his tunes sometimes feels like slipping into an old, favorite pair of jeans. He’s easy to get into, doesn’t chafe, and feels snug and familiar. After a while you start feeling like you could happily sit around with him all evening, just telling stories and shootin’ the breeze.
That’s partly because his chord changes and melodies really ARE familiar, since he borrows copiously — though nimbly and tastefully — from his Austin-area influences: Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark. He has also clearly studied the song-craft of folks like Bob Dylan, John Prine and Steve Earle — whose ex-wife Allison Moorer, Carll legendarily “stole,” to Earle’s dismay — along with other, younger Americana penmen like Todd Snider and Ryan Adams. Nevertheless, Carll’s is an original and invigorating voice rather than a merely derivative one.
Carll also has the kind of laid-back, drawling persona that can lull you into thinking he’s not going anywhere quick, when all of a sudden — WHAM! — it hits you that he just snuck another genius line or unshakeable melody deep into your subconscious, where it’s likely to sit and ferment until it hits you hard between the eyes.
He’s a sneaky puncher, that guy.
And then every once in a while his serious, more edgy, political side shows up to remind you that he has a less laid-back, more observant side, too. Though he’s only 43 years old, with just six albums to his credit, it seems like he’s been around (and been through) a whole lot more. In short, he seems like an old, wise soul at times, who has maybe gleaned more than a few nuggets of wisdom from his friend and mentor Ray Wylie.
Carll’s performance with his band The Gulf Coast Orchestra (featuring Travis Linville on steel, guitar, and dobro, Mike Meadows on drums, Geena Spigarelli on bass, and Cory Younts on piano, mandolin, and harmonica) at the Ardmore Music Hall on April 4 exhibited all of the above-mentioned qualities. His 22 song set (including three encore numbers) spanned his entire career, with a natural emphasis on his new album, What It Is.
Dressed in his customary blue, Western-cut workshirt, jeans and boots, and playing a trusty, scratched-up Gibson J-45, Carll choose to open the show with the train-beat propelled country honker “If I May Be So Bold.” Interestingly, No Depression had recently published an essay/statement of Hayes’ by the same title, in which he took a public stance with regard the country’s wide political divide. Though he felt uncomfortable about “being seen” in that way, he felt he finally had to do so after suffering an ugly on-line incident. (In brief: after Carll announced via social media that he would be playing a concert in support of Beto O’Rourke, “someone left a comment stating that he hoped I got shot on stage.” You can read his full response to the incident via the link provided below.)
In a way, starting the show with that particular song was like making a statement about a statement, saying in effect: This is who I am, take it or leave it. Or as he says in the essay, “I’ve decided I would rather be criticized for the things I believe in than be embraced for the things I don’t.”
Statement made, Carll proceeded to show his kinder, gentler side via ballads like “Nonya Business,” “In Times Like These” (which he introduced via a story about the time he and Allison Moorer made up a persona — a librarian — during a Southwestern Airlines flight), and “Jesus and Elvis” (about Lala’s Little Nugget, in North Austin). He interspersed those tunes with others highlighting his pointedly political side, such as the irony-laced “Fragile Men,” as well as his rowdier side with rockers like the joyous “Beautiful Thing” (from the new album) and the scorcher “KMAG YOYO” (an abbreviation for the military phrase “Kiss my ass goodbye, you’re on your own).
The band exited the stage after that last number, leaving Carll to accompany himself on the lovely “Beaumont” from 2008’s breakthrough Trouble in Mind, which he followed with his lilting, cheerful tale about the quirky courtship of Billy and Katey, “Girl Downtown.” Linville returned to the stage to accompany Hayes on dobro for the latter tune.
The rest of the band rejoined Carll and Linville and quickly picked up where they had left off with a rousing version of the Hubbard classic “Drunken Poet’s Dream.” They followed that with “What It Is” off the new album, which featured a tasteful dobro solo by Linville; the humorous “I Got a Gig” from Trouble in Mind, Carll’s rocking version of Scott Nolan’s “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” which drew thunderous applause from the crowd; “It’s a Shame,” solidly anchored by Spigarelli’s loping bass; and finally a kickass version of “Stomp and Holler,” which got the audience doing exactly what the title says.
Carll and company’s encore consisted of three tunes: the ballad “I Will Stay,” during which Carll held the audience completely in thrall (you could hear the proverbial pin drop as it ended); “Wild as a Turkey,” whose steady thumping beat was ably provided by Meadows, while Linville added another nice dobro/slide solo; and finally, Carll’s lyrical tour de force, “Sake of the Song.”
By show’s end the comfort level between Carll and the audience was beyond that of a cowboy and his favorite pair of jeans; it was well nigh down to the skivvies. Carll seemed particularly happy with the venue, noting that he usually plays “The type of place that has a mechanical sheep.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but like the rest of the audience I enjoyed the casual, drawling way he said it.
Ben Dickey, who opened for Carll and his band, was a bit more of an enigma to me. Like many other audience members, no doubt, I was intrigued to see how Dickey’s on-stage persona might align (or not) with his amazing on-screen portrayal of Blaze Foley in Ethan Hawke’s film Blaze. Despite his lack of experience as an actor Dickey absolutely owned that role and seemed completely comfortable and convincing in conveying the title character’s legendarily cantankerous, outsized personality.
He didn’t seem quite as outsized as a solo, live performer on stage, however, though his guitar chops were pretty darned impressive. Playing a black semi- hollow 1935 Gibson archtop through a chorus pedal, and at times running that combo through a looper pedal to stack multiple layers of guitar tones, Dickey provided a nifty nine-song set that culminated with a trio of tunes by John Prine (“Long Monday”), Blaze Foley (the unmistakable “Clay Pigeons”) and Townes van Zandt (“No Place to Fall”). Dickey sang that last tune with conviction, delivering its dark delicacy beautifully. Its legendary author no doubt would have approved.
Dickey seemed slightly more circumspect in delivering his originals, however. Perhaps it was nervousness in returning to the city (Philadelphia) where he’d struggled through some hard times, working feverishly as a chef at the fabled music club Johnny Brenda’s and experiencing “some kind of breakdown” after his band Blood Feathers broke up and a good friend died in a bicycle accident — this was before Hawke drafted him for the lead role in Blaze — but Dickey’s interactions with the audience seemed a bit halting at times. The only reference he made to his Philly past came when he mentioned the local phrase “down the shore” — “I never heard that phrase before I came here,” he said. No further comment was extended.
He was similarly reticent on the topic of portraying a songwriting legend like Foley. That experience was “really strange,” he said — “mystical and magical” — but he did not proffer any specifics about why, or what had made it so.
Which was just fine, as long as he was dazzling us with his nimble guitar playing and somewhat unexpected tunes. The chorus of the balled “Man with a Hammer” goes “Tallyhoo, time to go / Lay down your bones to be free, old soul,” which sounds rather old-timey; but when mated with chorus and tremolo effects pushed through a slowly distorting looper pedal, it became something else entirely. During an upbeat blues number with a strong affinity to Dylan’s “Highway 61,” Dickey shredded on a rockabilly style solo; another song had the flavor of surf music-meets-psychedelic rock, while a fourth featured a nifty bridge with R & B flavored stops.
The man definitely has some chops, and his voice has a husky, pleasantly Dylanesque quality to it. I’m hopeful that Dickey will begin to open up and establish even more of a rapport with his audiences, so he can convey the kind of breathtaking intimacy his portrayal of Foley delivers. He’s definitely a talent to keep your eyes on, whether for his acting or musical endeavors.
Upcoming tour dates for Hayes Carll, along with videos, recordings and merchandise, can be found at: http://www.hayescarll.com
Carll’s essay “If I May Be So Bold” can be found at: https://www.nodepression.com/if-i-may-be-so-bold-an-essay-by-hayes-carll/
Americana Highways’ review of Hayes Carll’s What It Is can be found at: https:// americanahighways.org/2019/02/14/review-hayes-carlls-what-it-is/ and interview with Hayes Carll is here: Interview: Hayes Carll on “What It Is,” Reading More and a Sense of Humor
More info on Ben Dickey, along with tour dates, videos and music can be found at: https://www.bendickeymusic.com
An account of Dickey’s time in Philadelphia (entitled “When musician Ben Dickey left Philadelphia, he was depressed. Now, he’s a movie star”) can be read at: https://www.philly.com/entertainment/music/ben-dickey-ethan-hawke-blaze-foley-20190329.html
Americana Highways’ recent interview with Ben Dickey’s can be found at: Ben Dickey Releases “A Glimmer on the Outskirts”