The Heights Theater
October 18, 2018
Given his well-known pedigree of being the only son of country mammoths Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, it was almost predetermined that Shooter Jennings would find himself wrapped up in the music business. However, rather than coast through the Nashville machine on the reliance of his name, Jennings has quietly established himself as his own distinct artist—a feat achieved by means of unpredictability and an ambition to step outside the often-obeyed confines of the country music scene.
For instance, since his 2005 debut, Put The O Back in Country (which solidified his signature rock & roll take on country), we’ve seen Jennings experiment with everything from metal and electronic music (in side project Hierophant), to vocoder-infused synth rock (in last year’s tribute to Italian disco pioneer, Giorgio Moroder). Given this recent expansion of sound, it was unexpected when Jennings released the Dave Cobb-produced Shooter this past August, an album that effectively refers back to the nostalgic country sounds of his father’s “outlaw” era, making it the ideal album to see Jennings present in a live setting at The Heights Theater.
On a night where the city’s priority clearly revolved around the Astros World Series chances, Jennings couldn’t have asked for a more untimely moment to stop through town (especially given the middle-aged country contingency’s proclivity to playoff baseball over a Thursday night out). Despite the sparse crowd, Jennings and his band didn’t bat an eye.
Right out the gate, Jennings came out with “Bound Ta Git Down,” the upbeat single from the recent release, which finds Jennings in a boisterous state behind the piano donning his signature Aviators and pearl-snap shirt. This tempo continued throughout the next couple of numbers, emphasizing a “piano man” aspect of his showmanship that was surprising to see given his earlier telecaster-wielding releases. Considering that Jennings has experienced multiple sold out crowds during this month-long run, I couldn’t help but imagine the party-starting effect these tunes could have had if only the dance floor didn’t consist of so few.
After the first few on piano, Jennings switched over to the guitar. With that change came an uptick in energy. Despite the comfort Jennings may now possess behind the piano, it’s with a guitar where he really makes his mark. This was especially with tunes like “Steady at the Wheel,” a true southern rock number from his debut, which quickly satisfied the few in attendance that were seeking a Skynyrd-reminiscent tune to raise their drink to. This effect was further evident with “The Door,” a George Jones cover from another tribute album of Jennings that sounds like everything but something you’d hear out of George Jones (given Jennings’ distortion-fueled take on the classic).
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Throughout the night, we heard little from Jennings in terms of audience engagement. Whether this is custom, or due to the half-filled room, I can’t say. But it definitely added to the overall sense of confidence emanating from Jennings. This confidence was no more so exhibited than by sticking his far most successful song, “4th of July,” right in the middle of the night’s set. To no one’s surprise, several in the crowd took this as a chance for a much-needed sing along, but what I took from it was a further solidification of Jennings’ tendency to be his own man.
Regardless of the obvious energy behind his heavier tunes, the night’s best music came when Jennings slowed things down, ending the night on a relaxed note. Numbers like “Living in a Minor Key,” and “Rhinestone Eyes,” rang the truest. It was here where you couldn’t help but appreciate both Jennings’ songwriting ability and voice—it’s the signature soul-filled growl that has allowed him the vast amount of freedom in his career.
Whether carrying a slow tune behind the piano, or a raucous tune behind guitar, it’s the voice that brought each song home, and it’s the voice that gave every true country fan in attendance a sense of comfort in knowing that a Jennings is still out there pushing country music’s boundaries.