Photos by Chris Gray
It didn't look good at the beginning. A few minutes after 9 p.m. Wednesday, the posted start time for visiting Cleveland roots-rockers the Magpies, the "count" at the Continental Club front door was all of 16 paying customers, and the band was nowhere in sight.
Two chicken tacos at Tacos a Go-Go and one Lone Star at the Big Top later, things were much improved. The room was considerably fuller - and would go on to be one of the biggest Wednesday-night crowds Aftermath has seen at the Continental in a good long while - and the Magpies were setting up their gear save keyboardist/vocalist Justin Gorski, who helpfully provided Aftermath with copies of the band's newest CD, Eastern Standard Time, as well as Jukebox Manifesto, recorded when the Magpies were still known as Roger Hoover & the Whiskeyhounds.
If you ask Aftermath, either name applies equally well - the Magpies because from note one, the quintet instantly reminded him of several of his most beloved artists (Rolling Stones, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen), and Whiskeyhounds because after the show... well, do I have to spell it out for you? Nice guys.
Roger Hoover, by the way, is the Magpies' guitarist, and the second his fingers bit into the riff of opener "Inside His Devil Grin," his guitar mixed so hot it's a wonder it didn't melt the speakers, the "Keith Richards" light in Aftermath's head went off like fireworks on New Year's Eve. Gorski was right there with him, his swaggering organ lick echoing Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." The cumulative effect was a ferocious hell-for-leather hillbilly boogie.
A few bars in, Aftermath and friend/colleague William Michael Smith turned to each other at the bar and cocked an eyebrow at almost exactly the same time. Could this band - of whom Afterrmath had previously never heard a lick - really be this good?
Sure enough. "Desperate for Love" was an accordion-laced heartbroken rock and roll ballad like Dan Baird used to do so well in Georgia Satellites and the Yayhoos (and now Homemade Sin), "Main Street" was Southern-fried Springsteen and everything a great bar band should be - fiesty, heartfelt and eminently danceable - and "Ain't Working for the Man" actually caused Smith to lean over and ask, "Is this the Band?" It almost was.
"I would not want to be Sideshow Tramps and have to follow this," he said. No doubt.
Blue-eyed soul ballad "Girl on the Hill" actually made Aftermath text a friend, "The band I'm watching right now... Ryan Adams would weep." But that was enough sentimentality. "Caroline" tore it up like Jason & the Scorchers or late-'70s Joe Ely, and the next song - as you can see, the set list (right) is a little hard to read - plunged back into Sticky Fingers waters and officially pushed the show past the threshold where a palpable "vibe" becomes evident - always recognizable by the heightening enthusiasm of the crowd (most of whom no doubt were as clueless about the Magpies going in as Aftermath) and the ever-increasing amout of women ringing the stage.
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Neil Young came and went, as did Elvis (happy birthday, King!), before the Magpies finally spent themselves with "Picture Me in a Love Song," a Replacements-like rocker that captured all the sad dignity and cockeyed optimism of playing for 100 people in a strange city, building up to a tremendous "Thunder Road" climax with Pete Townshend windmills and everything. How would the Sideshow Tramps follow this?
Well, with their trademark blend of jug-band bluegrass, hopped-up honky-tonk and love-the-sin-hate-the-sinner songs like "Won't Get Drunk No More" and one of the most sarcastic covers of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" Aftermath has ever heard. By the end, the dance floor was full, the band had long sweated through its clothes and fiddler Hilary Sloan had about three horsehairs left on her bow that hadn't snapped.
So yes, the hometown heroes managed to save face after all. But man, it sure was close. - Chris Gray
[Sideshow Tramps play Free Press Houston's "Worst of Houston" issue release party tomorrow night at Avant Garden, 411 Westheimer, with Come See My Dead Person and Robert Ellis. $8.]