Two decades ago, when the music world was starting to figure out that Americana existed - at the time, it was alt.-country - BR5-49 captured the attention of roots rockers and country traditionalists alike.
Bear Family has delved into the archives of the Ohme Filter (Germany) program for this hour-long slice of powerhouse honky tonk from the Lower Broadway denizens. Released separately on CD (with four bonus tracks from a Japanese festival) and DVD, these packages offer ample evidence of the fleeting musical magic BR5-49 captured.
A lively, competent honky tonk band, BR5-49 punched above their weight for 10 years - with various line-ups - releasing five albums of rarified, exciting music (along with a live disc and a few EPs) with diminishing chart success, but consistently favorable critical and peer response: nominated for three Grammys, the group received limited mainstream attention.
Fronted by lead vocalists and guitarists Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead, BR5-49 was rounded out by the considerably talented Don Harron (fiddle, steel guitar, mandolin and reso), Shaw Wilson (drums), and Smilin' Jay McDowell (upright bass). This 1996 set most vividly shows off Harron's contributions, and Mead's guitar chops are on display throughout.
For the most part, the program features Mead and Bennett alternating leads, their approach to singing individual. Bennett tends toward classic country crooning, while Mead is has a more fiery, country-billy style.
Relying heavily on the band's current (at the time) Arista debut with "Crazy Arms" being especially effective, "Cherokee Boogie," "Honky Tonk Song" and Mead's Ramones-meet-Hee Haw classic, "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)" are among the highlights. Alongside a load of covers (the always appreciated "Lonesome 7-7203" is sung by Bennett, while Mead offers up "Gone, Gone, Gone"), Mead's originals including "My Name Is Mudd," "Hometown Boogie" and "One Long Saturday Night" are of interest. "Heartaches by the Number" features tasty fiddle from Harron.
Nicely packaged with insightful, light notes by Mead (CD) and McDowell (DVD), there are a couple minor sound glitches, and the production values on the DVD are standard, but both the audio and video are highly enjoyable. The four bonus audio tracks from a 1996 Japanese concert round out the experience, offering up band-standards including "The Knoxville Girl" and "Hillbilly Thang." The DVD especially has something positive to offer those of us who never caught the band live.
"One Long Saturday Night" reveals transitory moments in neo-traditional country music history.