The Rev at The Utah
Last Thursday, the Reverend Horton Heat played two, sold-out, solo shows at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco. The night was billed as an evening of short songs and tall tales told by both the Rev and country star Dale Watson, who opened. This story was written without the aid of a tape recorder, so the quotes are approximate, but the stories are hilarious and hard to believe.
The night started with Dale Watson goofing around, rambling and riffing more than strumming his guitar. In fact, he was mostly playing a Lone Star beer advertising jiggle on his phone and hamming it up, giving a toothpaste-commercial smile and posing with a frosty bottle of the National Beer of Texas. “This is the last Lone Star beer in the state of California,” said the man who wrote “I Lie When I Drink (and I Drink a Lot).”
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“I assure you it is not!” Came a cry from the balcony — the first of many shouts from the audience. The evening was so intimate, and the performers were so adept and secure in themselves, that the night felt as much like a conversation as a concert. Heckles and jibes from the crowd were treated more like comments over dinner than interruptions.
After playing the jiggle again, Watson asserted: “This is the only beer that actually makes you a better person.” Grinning and posing again. “That’s right folks. Lone Star Beer cures asshole-ism.”
After performing some of his own classic hits, including “Truckin’ Man,” and “Big Wheels Keep Rolling,”Dale invited out the beautiful and talented Celine Lee. Between Watson’s low baritone and Lee’s gorgeous songbird warble, you could close your eyes and never know it wasn’t a June Carter and Johnny Cash performance. Before doing a fun and rollicking rendition of “Jackson,” they performed a touching duet called “Like Johnny Missed June” that proclaimed: “Like the sky would miss blue, that’s how I’d miss you.”
A short while later, Jim Heath — known far and wide as the Reverend Horton Heat — took the stage. Casually clad in a grey t-shirt and glasses, he played, song after song, holding the audience with banter and melody as only a veteran of “Show Biznes” can. Amongst them was “Liquor, Beer and Wine,” “Loaded Gun,” and — after request shouted simultaneously by three men on the balcony — “Cowboy Love,” a tongue-in-cheek little number about gay cowboys.
“You wanna hear that? That’s gotta be the worst song I ever wrote!” Said Heath, hard to tell if he was serious. “I wrote it cause we were on tour in Fresno and we had a day off. And the boys wanted to go to a bar and have a few beers. So they went down into town and found a bar. And after a while they noticed that the dance floor was full of only cowboys. And that’s when a tall black cowboy came over and started kissing another cowboy.
“The bartender came over and said, ‘You boys are just now realizing what kind of place you’re in, ain’tchya?’ And he bought them a round and they ended up staying there all night. I don’t know what all happened. But they told me about it and I said: ‘Oh, lord! An interracial romance!'” His tone is one of mock surprise, underscoring the idea that “Cowboy Love is silly little song that — while patently offensive — probably disturbs homophobic people more than anyone else.
“And I wrote that song at least ten years before that broke back mountain movie,” continued the Rev. “So I was ahead of my time.”
Heath imparted other far-fetched tales from touring. One chronicle started with a drunken misunderstanding at a NY nightclub. It ended with Heath punching the promoter in the face and fleeing in a taxi. “I woke up the next day and thought to myself, ‘Aw shit. What did I do?” Said the Rev. “And then my agent called. The promoter had called him — with an offer to book us again with the largest payment guarantee in the history of my career! Hmmm. Maybe I should do that tonight.”
“It’s worked before,” I told the couple next to me.
While both Heath’s story-telling and song-writing are superb and irreverent, his guitar playing is spectacular. Seeing him play a red Gretsch through a small combo-amp, with no band to back him up, only made it more apparent what great command of the instrument. Heath is truly in a strata with Willie Nelson and Brian Setzer for best popularly known country swing guit-fiddle-twangers. But Nelson doesn’t rock out half as hard as the Rev. And while Setzer may rock all right, he’s chosen to focus lately on big-band swing covers of Christmas songs (which definitely knocks off a couple cool-points, however fun and kitschy it may be).
“Any of the songs you’ve heard on my albums with piano, that piano has been played by Tim Alexander,” said Heath. “He and I would talk music and it was really helpful for my development as a guitarist to get a piano players perspective. He unfortunately died recently, but he and I would write these songs that were kinda like soundtrack music, like to set the scenes for old westerns.”
Starting into one of these soundscapes, Heath seemed to almost be playing “Loaded Gun” again. But then the complexity amped up and the direction shifted. He outlined chords and held the melody, painting a foreboding, instrumental picture of a western town — perhaps a scene just before the bad guy shows up. It was so much like listening to piano being played on the guitar, it reminded me a bit of Charlie Hunter, the jazz musician that basically plays organ music on an eight-string guitar.
Then, as if to keep the story-telling as outlandish as his guitar handiwork, Heath told how a popular cartoon character may have been based on his father:
“Jimbo and I had a one bedroom apartment, which was about all we needed since we were on tour all the time. But there was this bartender that was an aspiring comedian that lived upstairs. And we’d go hang out upstairs. And my dad would come around looking for us and go upstairs and ask where we were and they ended up hanging out together a bit. And our neighbor would tell me, ‘Man, you’re dad’s funny. He’s like, ‘My only mistress is the fuel and petroleum industry.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s my dad.’
“But this comedian and I were also golfing buddies and one day we were playing and it was just crazy crowded. We were waiting for like four groups to play one hole. We’re sitting there for like thirty minutes talking and he was really all about his career at that point. And he’s asking me, yah know, ‘What are your career goals?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, man, I’m just takin’ it one day at a time.’ But he’s like, ‘Nah, you gotta have some career goals.’ So I say: ‘Ok, I figure if I get to play golf with Willie Nelson, I have made it.’”
“But, anyway this comedian did start going places and actually wound up as the voice of Boomhower on the show King of the Hill. Yah know, the character that’s like, ‘Man ‘at dang ole internet’s dang ole easy man, talkin’ bout point-click, point-click.’ So he did alright for himself. But I feel a little odd when I watch King of the Hill, listening to Hank Hill say things like, ‘My only mistress is propane industry.’
Seeing as Boomhauer was voiced by Mike Judge — the creator of both King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead — I’m not sure the Rev’s story adds up completely, but I will alow that it is an entertaining yarn.
“And I did get to play golf with Willie Nelson, by the way.”
That part, I believe.
Heath also mentioned other people he’s met during his thirty-year career. One was the legendary Carl Perkins, who the Rev asked to confirm a rumor about Johnny Cash:
“There was a party going on at a hotel during and Johnny Cash took these M80s — basically small sticks of dynamite — and he taped two of ’em together like he was some weapons expert and twisted the fuses together. And he lit them right there in the hotel room and everyone was getting pretty nervous.
“But he just walked over to the bathroom and threw it nonchalant into the toilet and flushed it. Now, it turns out that the fuses on those things don’t necessarily go out if they’re submerged in water. So between the explosion and the water pressure, he basically blew up the plumbing in the whole place.
“It didn’t get talked about much. Kinda got covered up, but Johnny Cash was paying it off for like 28 years. So I asked Carl Perkins if that was true. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘Some good-ole boy got blown clean off his toilet. They thought he did it before Johnny came forwarded and admitted to it.”
Inevitably, Watson joined his long-time friend and musical compatriot on stage. The two of them cut through country classics like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” breaking into whatever came to mind. The Rev ripped solos and Watson followed with his own pickin’ and strumming, proving himself no slouch as well.
They also joked around and drank.
“My God, you bent at the hip for that!” Proclaimed Dale Watson after the Rev picked a glass of whiskey from the front of the stage. “You know, folks, we were checkin’ into a hotel the other day and a couple of quarters dropped out of Jim’s pocket.
“He looked down and said, ‘Ah, hell,’ and then took out a five dollar bill and threw it down. I said, ‘Jim, why’d you just throw five dollars on the ground?’ And he said, ‘Well, I gotta make it worth my while.’ And then he bent down to pick it all up!”