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Bill Kirchen – Twangin’ His Way To The Top

By J.C. Juanis

Bill Kirchen, known as the “King of the Dieselbilly” when it comes to playing his trademark Fender Telecaster guitar, certainly has amassed a formidable cannon of work since his days playing guitar as a founding member of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Bursting out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the height of the psychedelic and flower power era with an infectious brand of good old country music, western –swing, and boogie woogie, Commander Cody blazed a trail moving to the San Francisco Bay Area playing beer joints such as Mandrakes in Berkeley where they were embraced by students and hippies alike.

It’s really hard to believe that over 30 years have passed since those bygone days. But you wouldn’t have known it last week when Bill Kirchen returned to the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, CA in support of his new release, Word To The Wise (Proper American Records). Before going any further, I need to mention that this folk rock Mecca has recently moved to a brand new location in downtown Berkeley and features a new state of the art Meyer Sound system, and is larger and much more spacious than its previous digs.

Mr. Kirchen has always enjoyed a following in Berkeley going back to his Cody days. As a member of the seminal post Cody band The Moonlighters, Mr. Kirchen brought his patented brand of old west tales, western swing, odes to truck driving, and boogie woogie to local fans on a regular basis. So despite moving from the Bay Area 15 years ago, it was certainly no surprise that a packed house was filled with many old friends who greeted him on a recent Saturday evening at the Freight and Salvage.

In writing about Mr. Kirchen’s considerable body of work, it needs mention that despite not enjoying anything remotely considered a “hit” he has continued to release well received records throughout his career. His last recording, Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods, was chock filled with patented “dieselbilly” music that proved to be a hit among his considerable fan base. Mr. Kirchen’s new release, Word To The Wise, finds the gifted guitarist joined by many of his musical friends in a record that may be his finest work to date.

While Word To The Wise features vocal performances from the likes of Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks, Nick Lowe, and Paul Carrack, it is Mr. Kirchen’s considerable Telecaster prowess that defines each and every tune. Mr. Kirchen’s range of guitar sounds are astonishing; ~ from trebly twang and low down guttural blues, to soaring leads, and folk rock embellishments that ooze throughout the new CD.

Fans at the Freight and Salvage knew what to expect and Mr. Kirchen and his band Too Much Fun delivered the goods. The first set featured most of Word To The Wise and surprisingly, most of the performances actually sounded better than the new CD. This is no knock of the album either, however, a Telecaster guitar in Mr. Kirchen’s hands is a marvel to behold. Opening with “Bump Wood,” Mr. Kirchen’s vocals were in marvelous form, and Too Much Fun: Jack O’Dell on drums, and Maurice on bass, was joined by Mr. Kirchen’s frequent collaborator, Mill Valley’s own Austin de Lone on keyboards and vocals. A long time Cody – cohort and Moonlighter, it was deLone’s band Eggs Over Easy that went to England and helped establish the “Pub Rock” movement that influenced such great British bands as Brinsley Schwartz, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Graham Parker and The Rumor, and Rock Pile. Whenever Mr. Kirchen comes to town, you can always count on Austin deLone to join him and his contributions to Word to The Wise and this evening’s performance cannot be understated as he displayed on Merl Haggard’s “Shelly’s Winter Love,” which on the record was sung by Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack. After Mr. Kirchen’s take on “Man In The Bottom of the Well,” which was sung by Elvis Costello on the record, Mr. Kirchen recalled picking a song for the iconic British rocker. “I wasn’t going to have him doing a truck driving song. I wanted a tune that would have the veins in his neck bulging out.” Mr. Kirchen’s wife Louise Kirchen, a frequent collaborator, joined in for a wonderful rendition of “Arkansas Diamond,” that sounded just as sweet as it does on Word To The Wise. Watching the couple, who have had a 35 year love affair, certainly was as enchanting as it was entertaining, and the audience whooped it up.

Chris O’Connell, a founding member of the Commander Cody inspired, Asleep at the Wheel, joined Mr. Kirchen, on the Roger Miller penned selection “Husbands and Wives.” Ms. O”Connell was sensational and it sure was great to see her back in Berkeley after all these years.

It could be said that it just wouldn’t be a Bill Kirchen record if there wasn’t a Kevin “Blackie” Farrell tune on it. An indeed Word to The Wise contains two songs co written by the legendary songwriter whose classics include “Mama Hated Diesels”, and “Sonora’s Death Row.” It was a real treat to actually experience Mr. Farrell performing “Open Range,” from Word to The Wise. Mr. Farrell’s brooding vocals and tasty Telecaster playing was another high point in an evening full of them. “Valley of the Moon,” was also very touching especially since the record features what was among the last recordings by harmonica wizard Norton Buffalo. Mr. Kirchen recalls in the liner notes of the new CD that it was his wife Louise who brought Mr. Buffalo to the band’s attention and subsequently Norton Buffalo joined Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen during their European Tour that sadly was to be their last with the original lineup.

The second set began with what Mr. Kirchen referred to as the “Hazardous Cargo Trilogy,” and he dug deep into the Commander Cody catalog to perform, what turned out to actually be a “baker’s trilogy:” “Wine Do Your Stuff,” “Seeds and Stems Again,” “Semi Truck”, and “Too Much Fun.” The evening also included a wonderful performance of “Ain’t Got Time for the Blues,” by the sultry Shelly King from Austin, Texas. Mr. Kirchen’s take on Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” was delivered in a slow country blues style in contrast with his rockabilly take on “The Times They Are A Changin” that ended the show. An interesting note that the only tune not performed from Word To The Wise that evening was what I think may be the release’s best tune, “I Don’t Work That Cheap,” that features some rollicking keyboard work by the Old Commander.
For the encore, Mr. Kirchen was joined by all of the evening’s performers plus Phil March from the legendary Berkeley based Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band for a rambunctious rendition of “Riot In Cellblock No. 9.”
Word To The Wise is one of Bill Kirchen’s best recordings to date. Thirty years ago this record would be embraced by progressive radio and be exposed to a wide market of listeners. Sadly, good terrestrial radio is a thing of the past leaving the marketing of this fine music to be done by the artist. For a gifted artist such as Bill Kirchen that won’t be much of a problem because there’s a good chance that Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun are coming to your town.
And don’t miss then when they do.
For more information please visit www.billkirchen.com

© 2010 Gypsyman3 Publishing

J.C. Juanis is a long time contributor to Gritz and is a publicist whose clients over the years have included: Furthur, Phil Lesh, Dickey Betts, James Gurley, David Nelson and others. For over 16 years his column Bay Area Bits ran in the pages of Relix Magazine. He also performs country rock music under the name J.C. Flyer and now has his own beer ~ J.C. Flyer IPA produced by the Iron Springs Pub & Brewery in Fairfax, CA.   www.jcflyer.com





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