Country Music Award winners my ass. The Kentucky Headhunters may have been tagged as a country act by some American tastemakers many moons ago, but the simple fact is that they’re the most down to earth, on the money, don’t give a shit bunch of old fashioned rock’n’roll you could hope to find.
Let me explain. The backwoods Kentucky accents may say country music. Some of the vocal harmonies may say country music. But then Jimmy Witherspoon classified Chuck Berry as a country artist – and by the same token the Headhunters are a band who make the link between country, rock’n’roll, and the blues.
|The Headhunters - a self-styled 'bunch of old farts'|
But enough of the theory shit, and on with the show. They kick off with a boogie assault on Jimmy Reed’s ‘Big Boss Man’, and follow it up with ‘Rag Top’, cruising along on a ‘Peter Gunn’ style bass riff with a ZZ Top groove and showing off their Southern rock tendencies. And if there’s more of a country flavour to ‘Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine’, featuring the aforesaid harmonies, that doesn’t stop them diverting into a segment of bonkers rifferama.
Did I mention that they don’t give a shit? Witness, friends, their raucous take on ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. And if that isn’t enough, they take some liberties with a certain famous epic, to create a jazzed up homage entitled, er, ‘Stairway To The Outhouse’.
But there are things they do care about, and one of them is the relationship they had with Chuck Berry’s late pianist and collaborator Johnnie Johnson. Introducing a chunk of songs from last year’s release Meet Me In Bluesland, guitarist Richard Young explains that they made it with Johnson back in 2003, and it comprised the last work he ever recorded. The opening track from the album, ‘Stumblin’’ – “Let’s go stumblin’, ‘cause you know we can’t dance” – is inevitably a cue for dancing, and typifies their roguish charm, as does the dreamier ‘Shufflin’ Back To Memphis’. From their album Soul they offer up Freddie King’s ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’, on which they also collaborated with Johnson, and even without his piano mastery they deliver it like the classic it is, with Greg Martin’s lead guitar as deft and soulful as you could wish for.
Along the way they demonstrate their ability to get jazzy on ‘Some Folks Like To Steal’, while ‘Wishing Well’ (no, not that one) is about as country as they get. Regardless of genre
though, their musicianship is where they’re on the money. They’re tight as you like, with bewhiskered
drummer Fred Young and bassist/lead vocalist Doug Phelps mining a solid groove
from start to finish. But they still do
it with the relaxed feel of a band that know each other inside out.
|Doug Phelps gets windswept and interesting|
I could have wished for them to do a couple more songs from Soul, like ‘Everyday People’ and ‘Last Night I Met Carl Perkins’. And it would have been great if they’d conscripted an ivory tinkler to really give a nod to Johnnie Johnson on the Bluesland songs. But what the hell, I’ll forgive ‘em.
The closing stretch yields yet more surprises, as they breathe life into the hoary old chestnut that is ‘Spirit In The Sky’, featuring a snatch of ‘Favourite Things’ – yes, Julie Andrews, Sound of Music, that one – and really stretch the envelope with ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’. They’ve recorded these songs, people! They say their goodbyes with a medley of the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘Hey Jude’, with support band Bad Touch joining them on stage to deliver the terracing chant on the latter. All very well and good gents, but I wanted your take on Chuck Berry’s ‘Little Queenie’ – and that’s the only omission that really is unforgiveable!