Reverend Horton Heat
November 28, 2015
Despite Houston weather not cooperating, fans came out by the dozens in the cold and drizzle to see the legendary Reverend Horton Heat Saturday night. Good music doesn’t take days off and neither do fans. With a plentiful scattering of vintage vehicles lining Scout Bar's parking lot, it was apparent that rain wasn’t enough to keep the Reverend’s parishioners away.
Those early days before the Beatles invasion made up an exceptional chapter in American musical history. Country’s stand-up bass and rock’s bluesy Gretsch guitar sound met the early melodies of swing and bebop. Tinny guitar notes drilled delightfully along, countered by the plucked vibration of thick bass notes. Swing, rockabilly, and surf-rock were revisited and redefined in the '90s and early 2000s, giving this retro spin an independent, punk-edged feel. Many new bands came out of this movement, most notably the Reverend Horton Heat.
Rockabilly crowds are a stylish bunch, representing that time so fondly adored by fans of early post-WWII music. No other musical fan base employs such a deep affinity for American nostalgia. Saturday’s '50s-style crowd was an amicable group mixed of pin-up beauties in polka-dot dresses, Victory Rolls and Rosie the Riveter bandana-crowned heads. Men sported grease-slicked locks, pearl-snap button-ups and cuffed jeans. Looking like a blue-collar retro costume party, the Reverend's audience was the coolest slice of Americana I’ve seen at Scout yet.
One of the first people I noticed upon arrival was bassist and Deer Park native Jimbo Wallace greeting fans at the merch table, shaking hands and snapping pictures. You gotta love a band with such open accessibility; no cocky rock-star attitudes here. These are Texas boys, raised rightly. Our very own salt of the earth people, and their Southern hospitality shines through as expected.
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The Reverend took the stage around 10:30 p.m. to a crowd shouting his name and saluting his presence with true comradery, that being standing room only and beer bottles up.
Smiling, the Reverend stood in front of his signature chrome-wired retro microphone and opened with his lyrically sparse instrumental “Psychobilly Freakout.” Playing through several of his catalog favorites including “Smell of Gasoline” and “The Devil’s Chasing Me”, all a musical retrospective of American rock. The Reverend and bassist Jimbo exchanged instruments and performed a Christmas song, not surprisingly, “Run, Run Rudolph.”
A stagehand then appeared with another microphone and the Reverend announced a special guest appearance to the audience, Johnny Reno. The Reverend introduced him as, “A linchpin in the swing revival movement of the '90s, the Road Ragers, the Juke Jumpers, Sin City , involved in more movies than I can list and a real hero of mine. And, an original member of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s group.”
With that, Reno bounced onstage with a vivacity yet unseen in the show and a tenor saxophone. Music literally poured forth from this man as he not only played his sax but sang in a syncopated blues-inspired drone. His presence magnetic, he sang, danced, and rocked all over the stage, using his saxophone an extension of his raspy voice. Something about the saxophone is consummately fitting to rock and roll. It doesn’t demand spotlight attention like a trumpet or lull you into passivity like a flute, but its squeaky-hinge howl is the greatest possible complement to a rock band outside the harmonica.
Reno’s pairing with the deep pluckings of Jimbo’s basslines and drummer Scott Churilla’s toms took on an auditory energy that expanded throughout the entire venue, inspiring sporadic swing dancing, toe-tapping, and hoots and hollers from the crowd. Reno’s inquisition to the audience, “Does anyone here have a need for speed?”, was met with still more cheers.
Yet it was the Reverend who owned the show. It’s a testament to this band’s exceptional musicality that so much sound can come from a three-piece group, but volume aside, each player's depth and dynamism was profound.
I recall a younger Reverend in my college days, when he was performing around Dallas in sweaty venues some 20 years ago. Those performances popped with electricity as the Reverend’s presence seemed to devour the stage, and his music was a delicious and deeply haunting hymnal of drinking and rebellion. His stage presence was diabolically phenomenal, the embodiment of psychobilly with a punk-rock soul.
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Yet, Saturday night’s show was something far removed from those Liquor in the Front days. Not exactly muted, but much more mature, the Reverend played music for what appeared to be the sake of professional execution. All to my utter delight. Gone were the rowdy days when he would peer into the faces of the audience; here, skill was center stage. The only exception was when he would stand up on a monitor to play a solo, to which the expectant crowd responded with applause and shouting. Then the Reverend would return to the microphone and continue through his best work.
And that’s when I realized that the Reverend’s approach to shows was no longer so much about him or his contributions to the swing and rockabilly revival, but more about his art and what he offers as a performer. Perhaps when an artist’s gift becomes more than their brand, he or she really comes into focus as a creator. Witnessing the Reverend's evolution Saturday night was immensely satisfying as a fan and a reviewer. No wonder he can draw a Houston crowd in the rain, itself no easy feat.
It was clear that while he thoroughly enjoyed entertaining the crowd, what he enjoyed most was the simple act of playing. Willingly divorcing himself from the spotlight to shine it on the others of his band who were masterful themselves, the Reverend’s showcase of all the other enormous talent that surrounded him spoke to the character of who he is — a humble, immensely talented Texas boy.
And, for that, we’ll keep him close.