That's like a young Dylan or Springsteen skipping "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Born to Run." The song isn't just Bingham's biggest hit and primary reason he can sell out the Old Rock House on a Sunday night. It's a career number, a signature, or rather it would be if he didn't seem to have an endless stream of excellent, deeply felt songs to take its place.
That wasn't the case with opening act Rustlanders, who sounded fine, if by the numbers Americana rock is your thing, but who barely rose to the level of lobotomized Marah. I like songs about rainy nights, red wine and honky tonks, and I dig a good "shine on" chorus and a Leslie cabinet; it's the facelessness that skeeves me out.
At the absurdly late start time of 11:15 p.m., Bingham and his durable band the Dead Horses -- Matthew Smith (drums), Corby Schaub (guitar and mandolin) and Elijah Ford (bass) – grabbed the audience, by that point fairly well-oiled on beer and bourbon, and dragged them, fist-pumping and whooping, into the cursed, bleak and strangely enervating country blues badlands, where the road goes on forever and the indigence never ends. Opener "Day Is Done" demonstrated how good a Southern rock sound check can be, establishing the slide guitar tone for the night, then leading into the first of two marijuana anthems, "Dollar a Day." It's not a song about getting high. Like so many of Bingham's compositions, it's about political economy – really -- the way the rules of the capitalist game send some men off to die in the desert and others to get what they can by planting a little seed.
And it's a blast, tough-minded but comic and playful at the same time, driven by a band that has tightened up considerably over a few years of touring together and a couple of late night TV slots. The rhythm section isn't about to make the atomic clock obsolete, but they don't have to. They just need to follow the leader and his cast of fictional characters – the dealers, users, dreamers, losers, killers, killed, sinners and sidewalk prophets -- around the curves and bends of his somehow believable stories.
Even on the more surreal, newer material, especially "Hallelujah" (sung from the point of view of dead man) and "Junky Star" (a riveting, unromantic portrait of a farmland murderer turned California H addict), it's ultimately Bingham's rusted-out croak, like a razor across an empty Skoal tin, that makes you believe the songs, that gives them their gnawing realism. That, and their melodies, built for rebellious sing-alongs, no matter how grim or pointed the story may be.
In other words, authenticity may be problematic but honesty isn't. Introducing "Strange Feelin' In the Air," another song from Junky Star, Bingham acknowledged his small town roots by giving the finger to the prejudice he remembers. And on "Direction of the Wind," his most left-wing song, the energy and clarity of his delivery kicked the soapbox out from under all of us.
The 18-song set unwound at an unhurried pace, shifting between all manner of mid-tempos to rhythms just near (but not quite) break-neck stomp. When turning to a slighter song, like "Bluebird" from Roadhouse Sun, the band churned up every refrain; when turning to the final songs of the encore, "Sunshine" and "Bread & Water," a grand, double-electric slide guitar shoot-out and a litany of Southwestern locales summed up a riveting, moving, rowdy but meaningful party. Out in the parking lot, the tailgaters and their duck-hunting trucks rocked past 1:30 a.m. The working day could wait.
Day Is Done
Dollar a Day
Tell My Mother I Miss Her So
Dylan's Hard Rain
Strange Feeling in the Air
Self Righteous Wall
Direction of the Wind
Southside of Heaven
Ever Wonder Why
Bread & Water