Live Review: Bill Kirchen’s Honky-Tonk Holiday Revue @ The Birchmere — 12/12/21

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Bill Kirchen (Photo courtesy the artist)

Known as “The King of Dieselbilly” and “The Titan of the Telecaster,” Bill Kirchen has a distinctive, powerful style as a guitarist. There’s twang, but it rocks hard, and it grooves. When he plays “Hot Rod Lincoln,” the top-10 hit he had as a member of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in the ’70s, Bill shows off the range of his influences as a player. He spent several minutes playing a few bars in the style of many different artists during a set at The Birchmere recently.

There’s rockabilly: Chuck Berry, who he calls “America’s poet laureate,” is represented, as is Elvis Presley. Bill imitates the western sound of Marty Robbins with a bit of “El Paso,” and he also covers Johnny Cash. The British invasion is in there, too, the Stones and “the Fab 4,” as Bill referred to the Beatles, before switching to a bit of The Monkees, who he called “the Pre-Fab 4,” a reference to their deliberate construction by the entertainment industry. There’s plenty of blues here, too: Freddie King, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And there’s the surf-rock of The Ventures, also, plus guitar titans like Jimi Hendrix and Link Wray (who is said to have invented the power chord in “Rumble”).

Bill’s performance of “Hot Rod Lincoln” is emblematic of his career-making roots-influenced rock and roll, and of his contributions to Americana. While he’s best known for his work as the lead guitarist with Commander Cody, he’s been steadily making music for more than five decades. He’s developed a unique sound as a guitarist that’s driving and powerful. He’s written songs like “Down to Seeds and Stems Again Blues” that marry classic country tropes with a wry, modern humor. And you may just have heard his contributions as a player to the music of folks like Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Gene Vincent, and Link Warry.

Watch Bill Kirchen perform “Hot Rod Lincoln” live for TrueFire on YouTube:

Kirchen also has strong ties to our area. He lived in the DMV from 1986 to 2004, during which time he and his band Too Much Fun would win several Washington Area Music Awards, and he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2001. For years, he played a regular weekly gig at Annandale’s Sunset Grille, where he was occasionally joined by guests like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Marshall Crenshaw. Now, he returns to the area annually for his “Honky-Tonk Holiday Revue,” and he’s also performed on New Year’s Eve as part of the festivities put on by the City of Alexandria.

On Dec. 12, Bill brought a special guest with him to the Honky-Tonk Revue at The Birchmere: John Tichy, who was his bandmate as the rhythm guitarist in the Lost Planet Airmen. Bill and his band — David Carroll on stand-up bass and Jack O’Dell on the drums — played two sets, with John joining them on the second. The audience was full of longtime fans of Bill’s, many of whom knew him, and there was frequent interaction throughout the  show. It was a warm, festive atmosphere with a real sense of being part of a musical community.

Before his first number, Bill told the audience, “Remember, this the first Holiday Honky-Tonk Tour in two years, so if we hit the guardrails…” If they were rusty though, Bill and his band didn’t show it, laying down some first-class roots rock. Diving into his influences, Bill played a number of classic holiday songs: “Reindeer Boogie,” by Hank Snow,” Buck Owens’s “Blue Christmas Lights” and “One of Everything You Got,” Chuck Berry’s “Run, Run Rudolph,” Elvis’s “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” and Freddy Fender’s “Santa! Don’t Pass Me By!” He said “there’s a supply chain problem, and not enough truck drivers. A direct cause: not enough truck-driving music,” before playing Red Simpson’s “Truckin’ Trees for Christmas.” There was an even an original holiday tune that John had written in the Commander Cody days, “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas,” which, as you might guess from the title, is a different kind of Christmas music.

Watch Bill Kirchen perform “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas” live for Joe’s Pub on YouTube:

Naturally, there were plenty of nods to the Commander Cody days in the show. The first set concluded with the extended version of “Hot Rod Lincoln.” In the second set, there was “Mama, Mama,” which Bill introduced by saying, “We did this one on Deep In The Heart of Texas,” referencing the band’s legendary live album, which was recorded in Austin. “Little Sally Walker” also appears on that record. With John, he played “Down to Seeds and Stems Again Blues,” an overt reference to marijuana, and “Wine, Wine, Wine;” the two songs, he said, form part of a trilogy about substance use. They also covered “Midnight Shift” and “Goin’ Back To Tennessee.”

Many of the covers in the set were classic country songs that Bill has been playing since the .70s. Buck Owens, who I’ve already mentioned, turns up a lot; his “Crying Time” was performed, in addition to the two holiday tunes mentioned above. Dallas Frazier’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin’,” Bil explained, was a discovery he made in his hunt for old, used records. The show also included Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible” and the R&B classic “Riot in Cell Block #9.” There were original numbers, like Bill’s “Valley of the Moon,” which he wrote for his wife, a humorous song about Covid written by Jack, and John’s “I Go Ape,” which concluded the encore.

I don’t normally enjoy Christmas music, but I found this show a welcome exception: The numbers played were stone-cold classics, and they were performed with great skill. I’ve been a fan of Bill’s for a long time, and he did not disappoint. Any fan of roots music or rock n roll shouldn’t sleep on the chance to catch one of the greats.

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