Jason & The Scorchers limit the vision, but provide a good time
Tramp's, New York, May 1 29, 1998
NEW YORK - After nearly two decades on the long and winding road, Jason & the Scorchers are rock and roll war-horses. A live double-CD out Tuesday just about certifies it. Yet unlike most of their elder colleagues, the Scorchers" stories of road combat and musical epiphanies are history not tall-tales. Booed in honky-tonks for being too punk and abused in punk clubs for being too hillbilly, they created their own roost and proceeded to rule it like the hick visionaries they were, while influencing a whole host of youngsters who loved the twang and the loud-fast rules as much as they did.
And though neither record industry nor most record-buyers gave a damn, the Scorchers never walked away from the intensity of their belief in the holy spirit that the best rock and roll is consumed by. True believers to the core.
So when in the midst of between-song patter, Jason Ringenberg called his band "seasoned veterans," he certainly didn't intend to suggest that their time may have passed - he was just stating a fact.
And yet, like the tried and true tricks of most seasoned veterans, the Scorchers' on-stage explosion seemed overworn as a whole.
Break it down into parts or see it from the eyes of one uninitiated to their country-punk fervor, and the performance may still seem as exhilarating as walking any rock and roll highwire around.
Tune-wise, they are fully stocked with classic anthems ("Victory Road," "When the Angels Cry"), stutter-stepping honks ("Help, There"s a Fire") and furious three-chord rockers ("White Lies"), while demonstrating an unparalleled taste in and high-octane re-arrangement of covers (Dylan, Gram-era Byrds, Hank Sr. and Jimmie Rodgers were all represented in the set).
Neither has their charisma nor their chops dissipated. Ringenberg still embodies a manic cowboy front-man, using the stage the way a straitjacketed inmate would use a padded cell, careening from one end to the other.
And guitarist Warner E. Hodges is still flinging his guitar over the shoulder and spinning whirling dervish-style through his guitar solos (cigarette included). On stage, the Scorchers still exude confident physical energy like champion boxers during a prize-fight.
Yet musically, they"re barely on the good side of stale. Hodges is rehashing the same Chuck Berry and James Burton licks he"s been practicing since he was a wee-laddie.
And neither Jason"s harmonica blasts or drummer Perry Baggs" rhythm breaks have grown much since 1986. But more than the musical cliches, the Scorchers circa 1998 lack a mystery - not just in their songs, more than three-quarters of which were from their Eighties records, but in their overall vision.
Back in the olden times, in the midst of their sweat-inducing live ragers, the mystery used to creep in to engage the audiences' minds as the band exercised their hips - like the nearly indescribable "Harvest Moon," a mid-tempo, power-chord-powered metaphor for creepy contentment that sounded as unique in 1998 as it did in 1983.
Now, the Scorchers" eschew that reflection for the unadulterated bar-band declaration to keep rocking you, rocking you, rocking you.
And while in the hands of the Scorchers such a declaration is far from a loser, it is too easy to define and extremely limiting - especially for former visionaries.