Makes you wanna dance

Jerry Jeff gets ’em up and out of their seats in Oroville

GONZO MUSIC Jerry Jeff Walker cranks it up with bassist Bob Livingston and drummer Steve Samuel.

GONZO MUSIC Jerry Jeff Walker cranks it up with bassist Bob Livingston and drummer Steve Samuel.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Jerry Jeff Walker, Feather Falls Casino, Oroville, Saturday, July 28

Jerry Jeff Walker’s appearance at Feather Fall Casino last Saturday felt more like a visit with an old friend at a party than it did a staged concert. And it was pretty obvious before the show even started that most in the packed showroom were there to see Walker rather than the second act, which featured the very talented singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell.

But Walker, who turned 59 in March, has had a strong, almost cult-like following for nearly 30 years now. (Disclosure: I include myself in that group.) You could hear Jerry Jeff’s name carried on the collective murmurings of the crowd as its members—mostly defined by graying hair and expanding waistlines—shuffled in with beers and mixed drinks in hand, searching for their seats.

People in their 50s and 60s, wearing cowboy hats, boots and crisp 501s that probably weren’t worn quite as tight as they once were, buzzed with anticipation. There was a camaraderie here. No wonder. We shared a secret the rest of the world is oblivious to: Jerry Jeff is a master showman and has a presence, personality and musical repertoire that tell you that, in the long run, everything in this world is still all right.

At 10 minutes after 8, Walker and his Gonzo Compadres (an updated version of his original band, the Lost Gonzo Dog Band) took the stage. Walker gave a nod to the audience and broke into “Gettin’ By,” from his 1973 Viva Terlingua album. Dressed in a dark-blue, untucked T-shirt, beige jeans, black boots and a cream-colored cowboy hat perched on his silver-haired head, the unpretentious Walker was all smiles as he sang, “Livin’ it day to day, pickin’ up the pieces wherever they fall.”

Backed by original Gonzo Bob Livingston on bass, newcomers David Grissom on lead guitar and Steve Samuel on drums, Walker sang with a voice—always flat and nasally, but damn gritty—that sounded as strong as ever. By the third song, a rip-roaring version of “L.A. Freeway,” Walker and his audience had fully connected, and his band was on fire.

Walker mixed old classics—"Mr. Bojangles,” “London Homesick Blues,” “Charlie Dunn,” “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” and “Navajo Rug"—with newer songs like “The Cape,” “Texas on My Mind,” (penned by Walker’s son Django) and the one tune I thought dipped dangerously close to sappy sentimentality and caused the show to drag a bit, “A Woman in Texas,” written for Susan, Walker’s wife of 26 years.

He played another song for Susan from 1975’s Ridin’ High called, simply enough, “I Love you.” In it he tells her he’d like to buy her “big chunky rocks for your nose” (the original line said “big shiny rocks").

“Boy,” he joked. “'Big chunky rocks for your nose’ ought to tell you when that one was written.”

And an hour and a half after he started, Walker was singing “Don’t it make you wanna dance? Don’t it make you wanna smile?” and sure enough there at the front of the stage was a collection of leading-edge baby boomers, shaking it like they probably hadn’t shaken in a long time and grinning like teenagers on their first high.

When it was over, you had the feeling the audience was drained, which was unfortunate for Crowell and his four-piece band. And sure enough, a couple songs into Crowell’s set, many people started heading for the exits. It was a shame. Crowell probably should have played first, because these people, including the bourbon-happy real estate agent/horse trainer from Winters who sat, danced and yelled encouragement to the stage from directly behind me, had come see Walker. When he was done, so were they.

And, as much as I wanted to stay and listen to Crowell—his band was better dressed, sported more stylish hair cuts, had the bigger drum set and many more guitars to choose from—I, too, got up and left a few songs into the second act.

Hey, it was close to 10 p.m., and we Jerry Jeff fans aren’t as young as we used to be.