I have three main claims to fame, such as they are: 1) Jeff Beck, the English superstar guitar player, once sought me out and hugged me on his tour bus after a local show because of a scathing Kenny G review I wrote many moons ago. He even read parts of it to me from his computer. Guess he really liked it. Then we talked shit about Eric Clapton. 2) Joan Jett once winked at me from the LC pavilion stage as she was performing. I was in the photo pit taking pics, wearin' my new groovy Puerto Rican race track hat. But she clearly winked at me. Me. Not my hat. Me. Well, maybe my hat. Ladies love a man in a sharp-dressed hat, to paraphrase ZZ Top. I felt all kinds of special all over. I winked back and then licked my eyebrows, my customary return of salutation, here and in Puerto Rico. And that was that. Never heard from her again. Sigh. 3) G. Love was in my record store the day of one of his shows at the Newport. We bonded over a sweet vintage double-LP John Lee Hooker album I'd brought in from my own collection which he bought. That night, again in the photo pit, he saw me and nodded affirmatively, clearly acknowledging my humble shutter-bugged presence. But no wink. Coowell! There could be a fourth claim but it's kind of feint. I'll make it anyway. I once played guitar in a local band years ago called Ricky Barnes and the Hoot Owls and yes, I was one of the Owls (my favorite totem, by the way: be wise, save, said my owl piggy bank). Sort of a vintage country/rockabilly band. We made an album that apparently Big Sandy out in California heard and told someone if I was ever in L.A. I should sit in, ya know, sort of audition. Well, I didn't because I thought I sucked. Anyway, the story's true as far as I know--he at least liked what he heard on the LP. Thus, we get to the point: Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys show at Natalie's Coal Fired Pizza Apr. 5 will go down as one of the most charming, sweet, rockabilly-ish nights of Americana-esque live music in a great little club this honky little town will ever have seen. And I could never hold a candle to his stinkin' killer guitarist, Ashley Kingman, British ex-pat and a total monster on the electric. The guy was several players at once, he was. Terrific. With the big man on acoustic rhythm guitar, supported by a stand-up bassist and a drummer with a spare kit and skills tighter to the beat than a dice cheat holding loaded dice in his cheatin' hand, this four-some is the quintessential western swing/country/rockabilly outfit in the world. Nobody and I mean nobody possesses the Buddy Holly sweetness and grace Big Sandy has in his forever-young voice clear and pure. The songs, too, no matter which dusty road of Americana they travel down, have a spry amiability and kindness as to be virtually in a class all their own. Where do they come from? I don't know, but Big Sandy and his right flyers sure had a ton of 'em. For more than two full sets and a sumptuous encore, these West Coast throwbacks to an era of '50s genteelness played one up-tempo tale after another of good love lost, found, run around and returned to sender. To a highly danceable retro-beat more often than not. In "Heaven Is the Other Way," Big Sandy went from a smiling verse to a hurtin' verse and his face changed, too. When the song turned to its dramatic denouement, one was invested in the outcome: did he walk away alone? Sometimes lyrically he did. Like Sinatra. Big Sandy, though, in his soulfulness and his voice, often reminded me of the young Elvis, who could sing with such cool earnest in his early days even moms wanted their girls to go out with the rockabilly panther. Our big brown friend, Mexican as a hot burrito, channels Elvis and Buddy so beautifully and effortlessly you realize how truly special this guy and his band are. "How could you love someone like me," he sang to his girl, obviously not rhetorically because back then, songwriters knew how to put the condition into lyrics that didn't involve anything more than the occasional innuendo. Thus Sandy sang in a style and with lyrics gently reminding us of the Great Lost American Virtue: classiness. Coupled with an unforced sweetness--he's like this in person (it's easy to meet the performer at Natalie's, as intimate a little joint as we have in this giant 'burb of a city)--and you're transported to a time that might never have been. Though it was true that night. Everything wasn't peachy-creamy. Leave it to the guitarist to supply the grit. Kingman played rude, mean, clean and dirty. Darting in and out of Big Sandy's vocals, he accented lyrics, moods, grooves and drama with hyper-tasteful fills and biting little leads. Sometimes he'd play something so imaginative, sometimes distinctly against the feel of the song, I found myself thinking more than once: did he really just play that? Did I really just hear that? I was in almost equal awe of Kingman as I was Big Sandy as I was the whole band. Word must be made about Natalie's. First, great pizza. Second, great atmosphere. Third, kudos to her for booking the big man and his high elevation band. Fourth, when you put a Big Sandy type who is out to smoke you with a virtually unheard-of-in-this-day-and-age un-phony sweetness in a place designed to only get warmer in an intimate sort of way, the ambiance felt as snug as a pepperoni-and-tamale-covered pizza in one of Natalie's coal-fired ovens. Bolo-tied western charm met up with Italian-styled pizza making for a melting pot evening of world-class good taste. Right here. And I got a reason to pick up the guitar again. ------------- If only the following Saturday night would've been so sweet. Wasn't meant to be, though. Life is like that. Life can be so Saturday night. With the best intentions I went out looking for something to do and someone to hear. I'd seen the Nick D and the Believers flyers saying they were playing at Brothers Drake Meadery. I stopped by on the way home from work and asked the dude behind the bar when they'd be going on. "Nine," he replied. The big liar. So we show up before 9 p.m. and see some tall, hippie/dippy/bubble-gum/acid-rocker fucking around onstage, setting up his chair just so, tossing his lengthy locks like a hitchhiker in the wind, fussing with his guitar. He started his too-long set and revealed himself that despite looking like a cross between Neil Young circa 1972 and Dan Fogelberg when he was still breathing, his style was closer to somnambulism as an art form. My friend was feeling merciful. I wasn't. I nicknamed him Have Guitar Will Bore and waited him out. He didn't strum so much as make a little tinkling sound on his strings, accompanying his folkish-modern-Mountain-Goats-meets-Bright-Eyes unexceptionally nothing style, perhaps accompanying himself perfectly now that I just read what I wrote. I think his guitar was even a little embarrassed being up there, being tinkled by his Tinkly-ness. I know I would have been. Yet now that I think about it, maybe if he'd stayed up there and hogged the actual opening band's set then I wouldn't be writing the most negative review I'll be writing all year. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...The Wet Darlings, ruiner of our Saturday night. Imagine a band that doesn't know it is aping Pat Benatar. Imagine a band that doesn't realize it sounds like Stone Temple Pilots doing Pearl Jam doing Edgar Winter's Frankenstein, which, OK, was an instrumental. Catch my drift, though: no humor! No self-awareness! And so convinced they're heavy! The girl singer came on like a Welcome Wagon Lady determined to bust through the front door of your newly-bought house and make one thing bullishly clear: This is my neighborhood and this is how it's gonna be, dig? Like one of those bad bully women in those women's prison movies (see Linda Blair, Chained Heat, 1983). She sang from the bottom of her throat and her biceps, teetering on her store-bought heels like Minnie Pearl on her first date at the Grand Ole Opry, not quite sure if she was going to fall flat on her face or on her keister. The adoring audience kept a sensibly safe several feet away, never swaying in their visible admiration (indeed at least one girl was singing along with the verses, showing a far deeper appreciation than they deserved but then again I couldn't say I heard a memorable chorus the entire set) in case the worst happened. It didn't. She remained upright. I didn't wish her ill and still don't. However, America's predilection for gushing deeply held emotional truths, or even scattered, swirling will-of-the-wisp feelings on the surface has given rise to a new generation of young female singers who think purging said deep emo realities like they were barfing up dinner from an hour ago is, you know, art. It isn't. It's shit. So, for nearly an hour we heard a band tediously accompanying a front woman find her way lyrically from the bathroom to The Montel Show, and brother, it was a very, very long set. The band's mediocrity was so well-rehearsed I found myself fantasizing paying the worst wino street drunk on High Street five bucks and a free bottle of port if he'd stumble on to the stage and not leave. Maybe fall into the drums. I didn't however. That would've been rude. Nevertheless, what was in a way even worse, was how the twenty-something crowd--and there were a lot of 'em, the place was packed, even the patio--was so into 'em! Disgusting. Awful. Terrible. These kids, no wonder they're living in their parents' basements and always will be and are paying insurance premiums pricey enough to gag a maggot and they'll never get that high-tech Silicon Valley job because they can't afford the Greyhound Bus ticket fare out west. Here's the thing about their set: it made me start hating them. The songs were so goddam annoying, the band was trying so hard to be dynamic and coming off so knock-kneed pedestrian I found myself fantasizing about the Hookahville I was asked to guest-emcee at, which I did, and I had fun. Oh the hippie shit stunk to high heaven but the Neville Brothers and Blue Oyster Cult headlined and I grooved. But I couldn't leave--not physically, no spiritually, not mentally, not for long. Indeed, no matter how much my mind recoiled at the blob of a charged cloud of explosive emotional diarrhea flowing like stinky lava off the stage the message was this: you must feel my pain, you will feel my pain or I will slowly kill you, as I am this very second! If you think I'm exaggerating, I am not. My friend is still so mad at me for dragging her there she still won't talk to me. And this is why I never got to see Nick D and the Believers. For we were turned into non-believers and fled into the night, scarred.

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