Merrimack Hall, Huntsville, Alabama
Friday, August 1, 2008
Merrimack Hall in Huntsville, Alabama is a beautiful, intimate, 300-seat theatre and concert hall that has been going strong for a little over a year. In fact, I believe the first show they had last year was Billy Bob Thornton, who returned to the venue along with his band The Boxmasters last night for the first of two sold out shows.
The show began with a Boxmasters cartoon playing on the screen behind them. Pretty funny. Then came the electric hillbilly band all the kids from coast to coast are raving about, The Boxmasters, playing their unique style of “electric hillbilly” music, and generally bringing the house down.
Billy Bob, in his Boxmasters persona as “Bud Thornton,” chain smoked cigarettes and sipped cold beer and sang his heart out. Thornton interacted with the crowd, threw out drum sticks, kissed adoring female fans, signed autographs and put on a hell of a show.
"It's great to be back in Alabama," Thornton told the crowd. "I ate too much pork today. When you only weigh 143 pounds, you shouldn't eat seven pounds of pulled pork." Good point, Billy Bob. (He told me later that he never eats before a gig. Must have been the lure of that Southern BBQ smell.)
The Boxmasters include founding members Billy Bob, producer and multi-instrumentalist J.D. Andrew and smoking guitar god Mike Butler. The rest of the band includes guitarist/mandolin player extraordinaire Brad Davis, a long time member of Marty Stuart’s band and a red hot bluegrass (and rock) picker; former Guns N Roses and Alice Cooper keyboardist/guitarist/harp player Teddy “Zig Zag” Andreadis; drummer Mike “Bubba” Bruce, an Alabama boy who was feeling at home; and Marty Rifkin (who’s substantial credits include playing with Bruce Springsteen on all of his records since The Ghost of Tom Joad) on some sweet pedal steel, guitar and bass. Throughout both shows, these guys proved why they are the best at what they do. We're talkin' major musical skills, folks.
The Boxmasters hit the stage in their trademark dark suits and matching guitars, and looked every bit the British Invasion. Their sometimes risque, always great songs included their current #26 Americana hit, “The Poor House,” “I’ll Give You a Ring,” “The Shit List,” "Better By the Minute," the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Some of Shelly's Blues" and "House at Pooh Corner," and "Girl on the Other Side." They ended the first set with "Build Your Own Prison," which Billy Bob wrote with "Funky" Donnie Fritz (who hung backstage with us at the show), and The Who's "The Kids are All Right" before breaking for intermission.
Thirty minutes later the band came back onstage for their rock set. Dressed in jeans and rocker attire, they kicked it off in fifth gear with "Emily," "Hitchin a Ride" and a brilliant take on The Ramones’ "Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." Next was the Springsteen-esque "Hope for Glory," for "the people who shouldn't die in wars," Thornton said. It was a great political statement, and all the while images flashed on the screen behind them of Bush and Cheney, the Constitution, planes dropping bombs - it was heavy, and very moving.
The light and video show ran behind the band the entire time, often reminding me of old Pink Floyd visuals, and when they locked into The Ozark Mountain Daredevils “If You Want to Get To Heaven (You’ve Got to Raise a Little Hell)” the visuals of stained glass church windows, crosses, fire and water were downright stunning. Lisa Roy (billybobmusic.com) had told me to sit front and center, and made sure I was in the cherry seat for the second set. The girl knew it would blow my mind. It did.
The show was a staggering, jaw dropping, rip roaring rock and roll revival, spanning at least five decades of influence. After the show, I heard two gentleman talking in the men’s room. One of them said “Damn.” The other one said, “You said it, buddy. That was amazing.” Heck, I couldn’t have summed it up better myself. And to think, I get to see it all again tonight.
-Michael Buffalo Smith