Concert review: Ray Wylie Hubbard deals a royal blues flush at the Old Rock House, Saturday, April 28
St. Louis music fans showed true dedication last night as heavy rain, hail, lightning and damaging winds couldn’t keep a solid crowd away from the Old Rock House to see legendary Texas-based singer and songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard.
On a night when a tent outside a bar in downtown St. Louis left one dead and 17 injured and tennis-ball-sized hail broke windshields across the region, Hubbard rained down a mix of country, folk and blues to warm up a mostly middle-aged audience, still wet and cold from the storm.
Unfortunately the severe weather kept me from arriving on time for the early 7 p.m. start. Why so early you ask? The venue had scheduled another event immediately following this KDHX-welcomed concert; one that incorporated a back drop of black and neon-green decorative snakes wrapped with what looked like metal dryer vents that extended from the stage to a light rig above. It was upon that backdrop that Hubbard — dressed in a long-sleeved black t-shirt over blue jeans with a stocking cap pulled down tight — took the stage in front of a large group loyal fans packing the venue to about three-quarters full.
On tour to support his new album “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” the prolific Oklahoma-born songwriter’s 11th album in the last 20 years, Hubbard performed several new songs including “Henhouse” (a tune he co-wrote with Hayes Carll), “Red Badge of Courage” (a dedication to troops in Afghanistan who listened to his music on recon missions) and “Count My Blessings” (a track inspired by fellow songwriter Slaid Cleaves’ “One Good Year”). With honest lyrics that speak to the hard-working American, Hubbard’s weathered voice gave credence to the stories and lyrical imagery he painted throughout his 40-plus years in music. Upon hearing his songs, one need not question that he’s lived through some hard times yet continued to persevere.
Throughout the 97-minute set, Hubbard switched between acoustic and electric guitar as he played a country and blues mix that had the audience moving and grooving. He would add flourishes of slide guitar and sometimes just keep the beat going with his thumb plucking the open strings. Accompanied onstage by the solid drumming of Rick Richards, Hubbard was in a relaxed, easygoing mood and seemed to have a great time interacting with the crowd. Richards — a spectacular timekeeper with a great bass drum foot and a simple set of snare, floor tom, bass drum and tambourine — provided a solid backbone while Hubbard sang, spun yarns and entertained.
Hubbard also dipped back into his catalog for “Mississippi Flush” from his 2001 album “Eternal and Lowdown.” Before the song Hubbard reminisced that his father was a gambler and that as a kid of 10 or 11 years old he would accompany him to bars to gamble and drink. His daddy made sure that he understood that there were important rules to know about playing cards and gambling and that even a royal flush can be beat in a poker hand by a Mississippi Flush — any five cards and a revolver.
Before playing his classic song “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother),” Hubbard advised that this song should have died long ago, but somehow has kept persevering. Then he gave the audience an important lesson of songwriting: “What’s the worst thing about songwriting?” he asked, and then immediately answered: “Right after you write the song you ask yourself, ‘Can I sing this for the next 38 years?’” Even though the sing-a-long to the chorus broke down, Hubbard was genuinely happy that folks still appreciated the old tune.
Near the end of his set, Hubbard, warmed up and drawing energy from the crowd, seemed as if he could have kept going, but the second event of the evening loomed. Therefore, his performance was cut at only one encore. After the show, he graciously chatted and took pictures with fans on the main floor.
As the Texas-blues-appreciating audience began filtering out of the building, the tattooed and pierced crowd began to arrive for their event. For a few minutes the two disparate groups looked each other over oddly before going their separate ways.