Aftermath: Mike Stinson at Under the Volcano

At his first proper gig since relocating to Houston last month, suit-clad Mike Stinson raised the bar for honky-tonk around here a little. Maybe a lot. Joined by guitarist Lance Smith and Winfield Cheek on keyboards, steel and mandolin, Stinson sang his way through a jukebox's worth of field notes on various fools on stools in a nasal tone reminiscent of Buck Owens' Bakersfield buddy Webb Pierce.

Stinson, Smith and Cheek eased into the first of their two sets, alternating originals like "Jack of Heartache" and a reflective, B-3-heavy "The Late Great Golden State" with elbow-bending covers such as Del Reeves' "A Dime at a Time." The lyrics read like the memoirs of a besotted survivor both tortured and soothed by the bottle: "Stop the bar, I'm getting off," "I'll live to drink again another day," "I've got no one to drink with anymore." Meanwhile, the music gradually grew teeth until the trio reached the halfway mark with a gritty, Springsteen-like "Take Out the Trash." ("Honey, that's what you get...")

When people talk about musicians being "in the pocket," though, what they mean is what happened in the second set. It was the same scattering of originals and covers, only with an hour or so of added loosening up and locking down. Starting off with Kevin Gordon's "Deuce and a Quarter" (once cut by Levon Helm and Keith Richards), the trio hit their stride on Vern Gosdin's classic "Set 'em Up, Joe" and turned in another solid hour that nodded at the Everly Brothers, Nick Lowe and Dwight Yoakam while assuming the Texas trappings of Willie Nelson and the Flatlanders along the way. When not playing steel or mandolin like those instruments were standing in for the poor saps in Stinson's songs' heartstrings, Cheek reminded everyone that piano is officially a percussion instrument - look it up - as Smith's guitar licks grew steadily sharper and bluesier.

By the end, around the time a heart-melting Smith solo (it wasn't "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," but it was close) melted into Stinson's self-explanatory "Last Fool at the Bar," Hank Sr.'s "Mind Your Own Business" and the duck-walking CCR boogie of Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock," the trio had the good-sized crowd, well, juiced. Several people, including staff, noted that these weekly Wednesday Volcano shows had rarely if ever been so crowded. Of the several Aftermath has seen, only Shinyribs has come close to matching the Stinson bunch's musical dexterity and barroom bonhomie.

It was the sort of honky-tonk that does your heart good even as it destroys your liver. Stinson and his band, perhaps with an added rhythm secton, return to the Volcano September 2.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray