Junior Brown and crew light a fire under the ass of the brewery crowd
Honky-tonk guitar wizard Junior Brown brought his trademark double-necked guit-steel and a crack lineup of backup musicians into the Sierra Nevada Brewery Big Room on Monday night to show our little burg what full-on honky-tonk music is all about. And he succeeded.
The band, consisting of an electric bassist, acoustic rhythm guitarist and the best snare-and-cymbal drummer I’ve ever seen—all dressed in nicely pressed suit-and-tie outfits—provided barebones backup to Brown’s guitar mutations through the course of the evening. Their role is to provide an immaculately minimalist setting for Brown’s postmodern deconstructions of honky-tonk guitar stylings.
And provide it they did, moving effortlessly from loping country ballads to foot-stomping barnyard hollers and sliding into a few barroom shuffles and a stray surf or Hendrix lick when appropriate.
Brown himself is an interesting presence, garbed in a shiny dark-gray suit topped off with a perfectly blocked cream-colored Stetson and sporting a perfectly tended beard and mustache. He has the mischevious look of a sweet-natured college professor out on a bender. Except he’s got that weird-looking instrument and a microphone in front of him. The guit-steel is one degree south of bizarre, consisting of a normal-looking Fender electric guitar neck grafted onto a pedal-steel neck. No wonder he has to set it on a stand to play—it must weigh a ton.
He knows what to do with that microphone, too. Which is sing into it with a voice that’s warm and strong and well-humored, and capable of (or maybe prone to) sliding from a speaker-challenging bass rumble to a comfort-inducing baritone in the space of a half-note—a perfect honky-tonk voice, in other words.
Lyrically, Brown’s chosen subject matter explores the realm of the mythological average Joe, a sort of Dukes of Hazard romantic vision of good ol’ boys dealing with the PO-lice and lovin’ but skeptical wives. The songs, however, be they ever so lovable, are really just excuses for Brown to play guitar solos.
Hunkered down over his instrument, watching his own fingers fly over the fretboard with trance-like intensity, Brown is the quintessential guitar worshiper, ceaselessly enthusiastic about the sounds he’s conjuring up.
On Monday night his conjuring was obviously entrancing more than himself. It took a song or two for the sound guys to capture his voice, but by the time he got around to “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” the sound system was dialed in and the Big Room was transformed into the most elegant honky-tonk saloon I ever drank a beer in.
And, once the sound was properly captured, Brown immediately surged into a high-octane boogie tune about his “Pretty Little Freedom Machine” that filled up what little free space there was on the dance floor and set the stage for the next hour or so of genuinely awesome guitar-fueled dance music.
Given the present circumstances, it’s great to see people congregating for joyful gatherings, and Brown acknowledged those circumstances with a brand new patriotic anthem about the imperfect-but-striving Uncle Sam that hit a resoundingly positive chord with the audience.
Wisely, after successfully acknowledging the present, Brown dived deep into the past and performed a medley of guitar favorites that spanned the Ventures, Hendrix, Ghost Riders in the Sky, “Secret Agent Man” and “Dueling Banjoes.” Not to mention themes from The Twilight Zone, and Bonanza, and a reinactment of the UFO music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Good clean high-energy fun for all, topped off by a perfect encore—the foot-stompingest electric version of "Sugarfoot Rag" ever.