At the beginning of The Long Ryders’ concert Friday night at the Pearl Street Warehouse, lead singer Sid Griffin urged the crowd, “Please come forward so we have something to play to.”
They obliged, and the quartet launched into “Gunslinger Man.” Off the group’s final album from their run together in the mid-’80s, Two-Fisted Tales, the song at first appears to be a fairly standard song about the Old West. But Sid’s writing hints that there’s more to what he’s up in the first verse with the line “Fortified at night by some little pink slips.” In the second verse, the song transformed to a hard-rocking political anthem as Sid sang, “Today he’s known for the strength of his tongue / In Poinsettia Park with Russian immigrants / Hard as they work they’re never heaven sent.”
This is the essence of The Long Ryders: twangy, shredding country rock, combining the jangle of The Byrds with the crushing sound of Neil Young. Using country iconography, their songs convey politically charged messages. In “What the Eagle Sees,” Sid sang of “burning skies” and “dirty skies.”
Three out of the four members of The Long Ryders are songwriters. Early in the set, the band explored material from all of them. After opening with a song by Sid, they played lead guitarist Stephen McCarthy’s “You Don’t Know What’s Right, You Don’t Know What’s Wrong,” followed by bassist Tom Stevens’s “A Stitch in Time.”
A spirited drum intro by Greg Sowders, who works in music publishing, kicked off “Make It Real.” Sid told the audience, “I wanted to call it ‘Tell the Boss I’m Sick.’” At the conclusion of “State of My Union,” which lends its title to the band’s second album, State Of Our Union, Sid exclaimed, “That’s a spicy meatball!”
Between songs, Stephen switched to a 12-string guitar, and The Ryders played “Molly Somebody” from their latest album, Psychedelic Country Soul, their first collaboration in 33 years. An equal of amount had passed, Sid mentioned, since the band last played DC. While they were in town, they had a chance to meet up with an old friend, Billy Bragg, who played The Birchmere.
Stream Psychedelic Country Soul by The Long Ryders on Spotify:
The Ryders played the late Tom Petty’s “Walls,” which they covered on their latest album. The Ryders recorded the album at Dr. Dre’s studios. Their roadie went on to become Dre’s personal assistant. In a turn of good karma, he got the band a week in the top-flight facility.
Following another song from Psychedelic Country Soul, “The Sound,” The Ryders played “Ivory Tower” from their album Native Sons. Gene Clark, an original member of The Byrds, sang on the track. After “I Had a Dream,” Sid introduced the band, and Tom sang “The Bells of August.” Next up was “Final Wild Sons;” the title of The Ryder’s compilation album, which received five stars on Allmusic, plays on this: Final Wild Songs.
Tom sang again on “Greenville,” and Stephen took over lead vocals for “Boxcars.” With “Southside of the Story” the band paid tribute to Beat figures Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassaday. They closed their set with “Lights of Downtown,” the story of a man released from prison and leaving town.
Enthusiastic applause quickly brought The Ryders back to the stage for an encore, and they played two songs. They covered the essential Americana of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” before finishing up with their signature song, “Looking for Lewis and Clark,” an attack on the political corruption of its era and a paean to fallen idols.
Here are some pictures of The Long Ryders performing at Pearl Street Warehouse on Sept. 20, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Rashad Polk.