“I signed up for life,” said Warner Hodges in the chat room at this week’s Roots. And the fire in his eyes was the same light kindled decades ago at his first AC/DC concert. It’s one thing to attend 105 AC/DC shows (his count, unverifiable) and another to have put on thousands of your own shows, each one a tornado of focused energy and teenage vigor. Hodges told us his favorite thing about the Nashville rock scene of the 1980s is that “we’re all still doin’ it,” referencing his friends and colleagues in all the bands we had on hand. The night, so alive and immediate, affirmed my disdain for music-as-nostalgia. It reminded me of William Faulkner’s famous line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
All week, our social media had been filling up with photos of our lineup’s Nashville rockers – especially Government Cheese – from back in the day. It was an album of unblemished skin, doughy innocence, stoned eyes, cigarette-dangling attitude and cutting edge 80s hair and fashion. But was this show about pining for some lost time? Expletive no. To a man, the musicians looked better, sharper and fitter than ever as they played blazing, smart, bone-pulsing music with no expiration date. The gray hair and age lines were emblems of wisdom. It all affirmed that rock and roll will either kill you or keep you young.
Our Nashville Rock-trospective started with Webb Wilder. He invoked the muse with “I Gotta Move,” the quintessence of the snappy, spanky WW groove. Then he and The Beatnecks strutted on through the clean riffy rock of “Yard Dog” and the sweeter, poppier “The Only One” and the tried-and-true ode to the “Human Cannonball.” Webb’s got the utterly natural yet carefully cultivated weird Southern cool that puts him in the league of folks like Sleepy LaBeef, not to mention a voice as big as our Factory. The band was, no surprise, bangin’ with special credit to the intricate, super-musical electric guitar work by Bob Williams. Set closer “Poolside” was the summertime anthem we needed to fully accept that it’s June.
Bill Lloyd recently released ReSet2014, the mod-titled reworking and celebration of his signature Set To Pop album of 20 years ago. And on stage Bill makes something new of his catalog every time he plays. So we got “I Went Electric” with its starbursts of colorful chords distributed among three layered guitars. Lloyd’s consummate skill with melody (so often neglected in pop music) shone throughout but nowhere more vividly than “Buy On Credit.” Inspired by some recent work with the Motown oeuvre, the band did a surprising “Stop In The Name of Love.” While “The Fix Is In” had that magic blend of mathematical precision and rocking abandon that makes Bill Lloyd’s songs so nourishing yet so fun. Again, my great seat next to the lead guitar gave me an intimate look at Pat Buchanan’s incredible, deliberate playing. Dang, I wish I could do that.
Speaking of guitar, the amplified solid body electric was pushed to its illogical conclusion and roaring heights of sonic energy in the hands of Warner Hodges and his wiry blonde sidekick Jonathon Bright. I’ve always veered away from writing about blazing rock music because I’ve always said that once I’ve established that the rock indeed rocked, I run out of verbs and adjectives. But I can write about people, and Hodges was a complete character, audacious in his spurs and trademark scarf and inspiring in his enthusiasm and his humility. Few have spoken from our stage as gracefully about their fellow acts. He singled out Buchanan’s slide solo as a moment of transcendence (true). And he introduced us all to his Mom, who was in the crowd! She was the beginning of his journey not just as a life form but as a rock and roller. Warner told us he played drums in his family’s country and western band when he was 10 years old and he told us that made him feel like the coolest cat in the state. He only built on that from there, and whether he was shredding, swooping the guitar over his back, singing or encouraging Bright’s own searing solos, Hodges shared rock and roll that’s timeless, ageless and generous of spirit.
I dissed nostalgia earlier but I’ve got nothing against appropriate doses of sentiment, and the sentimental favorite of the night was certainly going to be the regrouped, rested and ready Government Cheese. Scruffy as ever but musically tight as a drum head, they came out fiery and furious from the get-go singing of a desperate man in “Anna Lee,” one of many songs they did off their new record The Late Show. Having missed Government Cheese 1.0, this was my first chance to see vocalist Scott Willis at work. Besides coveting his magnificently spiky salt and pepper hair, I totally believed him. He corkscrewed with verve, less fidgety than Michael Stipe and more athletic than Joey Ramone, but with hints of both. Guitarist Viva Las Vegas maintained a rocker’s low-slung stance and plunged downstrokes of power. Bass man William Hill took on lead vocals for “The Shrubbery’s Dead,” a sad but thrumming portrait of a stumble drunk. And Tommy Womack, who wore his top hat and glasses, because he’s a rocker and a scholar, sang too. My fave was “I Need Love” with its short, sharp couplets of strangely connected, evocative phrases. Eternal Womack singing companion Lisa Oliver Gray came out to offer soaring harmony on the choruses. I also loved Tommy’s purple sparkly 12-string electric, which brought the chimes and jangle to “Rolling In Your Grave.”
The guys wrapped their scheduled set with an ode to Bowling Green, origin point of the Cheese and Bill Lloyd and many other Nashville rockers. They got an encore in which they called on the audience to “Feed My Monkey.” And guest host Peter Cooper, who may be the nation’s top repository of 80s Nashville rock stories and history, wrapped up his guest hosting with the mosting by leading the musicians in “I Can’t Help Myself” by the late Tim Krekel, friend of all involved. Our ministress of vibe and talent Laurie Gregory shook a tambourine on stage, and she earned it by putting this special evening together. I think we all left a little more proud of our years and a bit more determined to stay forever young.