Real country music draws pictures of broken hearts and busted noses, of trailer parks and honky tonks, of do-wrong men and cheating women. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.
Epic, what-the-hell's-a-liver-for-anyway drinking.
Whitey Morgan and the 78's hail from Flint, Mich. and, from tales I've heard told, if you want to find the epicenter of a fracture of the American Dream, Flint would be a great place to look. The opening bands for this triple bill at Off Broadway, Doop and the Inside Outlaws and Sarah Potenza are from Detroit and Providence, R.I., respectively. Coupled with Flint, they represent a perfect trifecta of American cities gone fallow by a vanishing manufacturing base and the lack of a Plan B.
These are places of long-term, hard-knuckle depression and poverty that require a liberal and soothing application of stuff that ain't good for you just to show that you have some control. Whitey's music speaks to those conditions.
A quote from Whitey: "My job is to show you how much fun drinking is."
Okay. So I looked up how to prepare for a night of liquid debauchery. It turns out that most of the information on the Internet is in the form of advice to frantic inquiries from American businessmen regarding preparation for a night entertaining Japanese businessmen. Sheesh, can't we lead in anything anymore? This from a country that had Ulysses Grant as a president.
The answers were interesting. I filtered out those mentioning barbecue sauce, Pepto-Bismol and Santeria shrines and started drinking water, eating vitamins and loading carbs about a week ago. Well, I pretty much always load up on carbs, but this time I had a reason.
Whitey formed his band o'outlaws in 2005 and they recorded their first album, "Honky Tonks and Cheap Motels" for Small Stone Records. After some personnel changes, the band signed with Chicago's Bloodshot Records in 2009 and recorded their 2010 self-titled album. The band's sound, which, to my ear, doesn't differ that much between the two records, is heavy on two-step beats that, by my reckoning, will launch the generic inebriate into orbit. And by generic inebriate, I mean me.
It looked more like a not-so-posh part of London than St. Louis as I pulled into the Cherokee Street historic area. The rain and fog diffused the hard edges of decay and made the decades-idle Lemp Brewery look alive somehow. Spooky, but alive.
The crowd was sparse early on. Perhaps they were trying to wait out the rain. Maybe they were doing some last-minute vitamin and carb loading. But the small crowd made it easy to pick out Sarah Potenza before the show.
We spoke for a while just before she took the stage. She spoke mostly about Doop and his lot more than herself. She told me they were amazing live and that he had been a firefighter in Detroit before he lost his job and that he wrote songs that spoke to the conditions there in a way that really touched her. Later I was to learn that was not only a very sweet thing to say, it was the truth.
Potenza was accompanied by her husband and Tall Boys band mate, Ian Crossman, on baritone guitar for the whole eight song set. Crossman was adept at squeezing different sounds from the rarely-seen instrument (last sighting: Sarah Watkins playing with the Decemberists) and he provided a perfect foil to Potenza's acoustic guitar, sometimes playing riffs, sometimes solos, sometimes bass lines.
But it was Potenza's vocal performance that lifted the gathering crowd. Her voice is like a Russian nested doll with Bonnie Raitt on the outside and Etta James, Susan Tedeschi and Brittany Howard inside. Not as gritty as Joplin, not as smooth as Norah Jones, sometimes sounding like Carole King channeling Big Mama Thornton, Potenza has a powerful, natural instrument and the originals they performed suited it well.
Between shows I met Don "Doop" Duprie, who looked like he was about to shove off for a season of Deadliest Catch in his watch cap and ZZ Top, Junior beard. He looked me in the eye and shook my hand in a way that spoke volumes about his sincerity and solid, working class honesty.
We had traded messages on Friday and he told me that he had just found a new rhythm section as his bass player and drummer had left to go on tour with Rodriguez. He was more than gracious about them following whatever it was they had to do but seemed a bit nervous about the whole of the matter. Personally speaking, though Rodriguez is red hot after being dead for so long, I think they made the wrong choice.
It turned out that Doop had no reason to worry as bass player Leann Banks and drummer Travis Harrett crushed it. Pete Ballard was superb on steel guitar all night, once coaxing what sounded like a Hammond B3 organ sound from the instrument. But it was Duprie and the songs that won the night.
If Bruce Springsteen had been raised in Detroit rather than New Jersey, these might be his songs.
The set kicked off with a rousing "Who's to Say" and then slowed down to a country beat for "Everett Belcher" which Duprie introduced as a song about his grandfather and others like him who moved to Detroit for jobs in the late 1940s and ended up making the American Dream happen.
Another standout for me was the cover of Springsteen's "Prove It All Night," with Ballard's steel guitar mimicking the lead guitar licks.
Later, Duprie testified about his love of the Boss and told me he was "just trying to tell the truth and make it rhyme." That, to me, is the basis of good songwriting. I saw Springsteen nine times, back in the day, and there is little doubt that is a hard wire between Doop and me. That said, this was the standout set of the evening.
Whitey and his band of three took the stage after a short intermission. I noticed an immediate and distinct increase in the number of shots being consumed. And whooping increased by 63 percent.
And let me just say this: facial hair was represented! Facial hair was in the house! I haven't seen that much hair on stage since The Doobie Brothers in 1972.
Whitey kicked off with a short rendering of John Prine's "Paradise," a haunting tale of greed and land rape in eastern Kentucky and it was a perfect choice to set the tone for the set.
I'm not sure when they started selling beer in containers approximately the size of institutional green bean cans but it somewhat affected your intrepid reporter. Translation: around the fifth song of Whitey's set, I put my notebook away and joined the fray in front of the stage. Our minds may have been sullied but our feet and asses were not as we moved both vigorously.
Whitey's lyric, "It's been a long time since I had a good time" seemed apropos of the whole evening, even if it was really only last weekend.
We all know the truth. Weeks are long. Weekends are short. Times are hard. And on this Saturday night in St. Louis, three acts turned those hard times into the blues, a poem and a party. But especially a party.
Can someone call me a cab?