(Note: This is a COUNTRY music website. But because we’ve followed Shooter’s transition from country to rock, because his father is the Flying W, and because he was playing at the Roger Alan Wade show I was at, I decided to write a review. No bellyaching; we will resume our regular countrified programming shortly.)
When I listened to Shooter’s new rock album Black Ribbons, I listened cover to cover as the artist intended, especially since it was a concept album. As I said in my review, the album had decent songs, but the concept had gotten in the way and ostensibly buried them. Since I wrote that review and have listened to the album more and more, those “decent” songs became good. They grew on me. But I had to check re-evaluating the album because if I went back and listened to it cover to cover again, the same problems (Stephen King’s commentaries, pretentious and immature songs, over-saturation of electronica) were still there.
But when I saw Shooter live at the musINK Festival in Dallas, the live setup naturally weeded out some of the over-electronica of the album, and with the exception of the very first “Will O The Wisp” communique that started the concert, the set was sans Stephen King. What was left was a genuine, engaging rock show that deserves much praise and little criticism.
The show started with the Black Ribbons album progression almost verbatim: “Wake Up,” “Triskadekaphobia,” “Don’t Feed The Animals.” During the Black Ribbons portion Shooter would switch between a two-keyboard bay and a guitar. When he backed up from the keys and grabbed a Gibson Flying V guitar to hit the power rift on “Wake Up,” it was like a punch in the face, and questions about the direction of Shooter’s music melted away to the ecstatic sense that grabs you when you’re watching a live performance of good rock n’ roll played balls out.
After the first few songs Shooter started skipping around the Black Ribbons album, ending up at the song “When The Radio Goes Dead,” written by bass player Ted Russell Kamp. This was really one of the standout moments of the night as the band took this song to the hilt.
The whole concert, Shooter came across with a slight unappealing cockiness, but the energy of the band always felt fairly pure. I am a country writer, and I am used to less of a “rock star” attitude and more of the “aw-shucks” approach to stage energy, but when Shooter and guitar player John Schreffler started jumping around and hair started flailing, the energy felt genuine, which is not always the case at a rock show. On a few occasions the band outright jammed, and by that I mean taking the song many bars past its original ending and hanging on cords just to feel the music for a bit longer. You felt they were truly enjoying themselves, and that feeling was infectious with the crowd.
Even Shooter critics will give you that his band has always been a strong suit. The .357’s, now known as “Hierophant,” did not disappoint, but neither did Shooter, solely looking at his performance as a musician. He handled the keys and the guitar with above-average adeptness for a frontman, though one of the annoyances of the night was a roadie that would come in between almost every song to adjust the keyboards, microphone, and guitar situation while Shooter stood toward the back of the stage sipping from a red cup. Sure, an extra set of hands can’t be avoided at times, but it seemed a little excessive and made Shooter look like he was too cool for school to tote his own gear.
Shooter finished up with four numbers from his country albums, including another Ted Russell penned number “Steady at the Wheel,” as well as his hit “4th of July.” My favorite song of the set was “Manifesto #1” from his first album Put the O Back in Country. The best part about Shooter, and when his talent becomes something that can be appreciated universally is when he tilts his head back, squints his eyes, and sings with soul unmatched, straight from the heart. Sometimes his new music facilitates this, but sometimes it doesn’t. As Shooter’s career has progressed, it seems he’s moved away from this slowly but surely for a more straightforward rock sound, but his soulful singing is his trait that can transcend songwriting, concepts, or guitar playing or banter on genres.
Shooter had great balance in his set. He introduced the new material through the more accessible songs that work well live, and then gave the country contingent their red meat. At no point did the set have a lapse in energy, or did any of the material feel out of place. When he started playing his older country-ish tunes, it didn’t feel like a different band; it all melted together well, partly because there wasn’t much country in what he was doing. Mixing music styles is a hard tightrope to walk, and Shooter did it just about perfectly.
Unfortunately though, by the time Shooter got to the country stuff, the cowboy hats drifting through the crowd had located the exit. You have to appreciate that some Shooter fans don’t live on message boards and blogs. Maybe they’ve only heard his first one or two albums. I came there trying to keep an open mind, and generally knowing what to expect. If you were coming to see Waylon’s son, buyer’s remorse would be a big part of your Shooter concert experience, and watching the crowd, it did thin out as the concert progressed.
If I wrote this review solely from a country music perspective, it would have a completely different mood. Even the Shooter fans who like the new direction need to understand this, and why there is general disgruntlement and confusion coming from the country crowd. There was never really any clear explanation given to them. They gave their heart to Shooter’s music, and Shooter broke it. When I first began reporting that Shooter was “leaving his country roots behind” (as articulated by his management), some came hear attacking me, saying that Shooter would never do such a thing. I’m not saying this from the pride of being right, but empathy from these country fans who feel misled or let down.
Again, I am a country writer, and this was a rock show. I do listen to other types of music, but I reserve my precious few music dollars for the shows in my country sphere. But if Shooter comes back through town, I will be attending again.
I really hope this is the end of my Shooter Jennings coverage. Unless he does the whole “going back to my roots” bit in a few years, it’s just not germane to what I cover. But I’m very glad that I can dot the period on a positive note, and I’m not having to swallow hard and cross my fingers to do so. Shooter seemed genuinely happy with the new direction of his music. And though I will never be able to get behind elements of his new album, I can truly say his live performance was top notch.
Grade it an A.