Reckless Kelly plays it cool in ‘Hell’

Dec 5, 2005 | Reviews, Series 18


In the final installment of the year for the “Sings Like Hell” series Friday night in the Lobero Theatre, two bands came together for a quasi-holiday party and a live-wire study-in-contrast.

Austin, Texas-based “alt country” favorites Reckless Kelly headlined, rooted in singer-songwriter Willy Braun’s fine and earnest, motel cowboy poet brand of a songbook. Opening the show, and coming from an entirely different musical place, was the lovably clumsy, proudly eccentric folk-pop-country-punk outfit, Listing Ship, whose members have played with the eels and Brian Wilson.

This night’s incarnation of Reckless Kelly, a respected part of the new country-rock scene mostly based in Texas, was a largely unplugged, sit-down kind of event. It made for a relaxed and satisfying songfest, without distractions, a good way to experience Braun’s impressive meat-and-potatoes song art. The five-piece band included electric bass, two acoustic guitars, drummer Jay Nazz playing only snare, cymbal and shaker, and Willy’s brother Cody on electric violin and mandolin.

“We usually do a full-on rock ‘n’ roll, electric show,” Willy told the crowd, “but that would have been sacrilegious in this room.”

True enough: They worked the Lobero’s ambience beautifully in organic mode.

The good, strong and no-nonsense song parade kept coming, with short, tight tunes, many drawn from the band’s warm and punchy new album, “Wicked Restless Road” on the Sugar Hill label. The album’s bittersweet, reflective title song — performed here as an encore — is, in fact, a departure from the fierier country-rocking songs and twists like the Celtic-colored “7 Nights in Eire.”

The highlight of the album — and this show — was “Motel Cowboy Show,” a catchy number about the simple pleasures of honky tonking and toasting the “break of dawn.”

Braun’s voice is rich and beefy, lightly spiced with a twang, a blend of qualities which nicely suited lyrics about the road life, restless hearts and lore from the 21st century Wild West.

Turning away from the Braun songbook, they also offered a ripe cover version of the Buddy Miller tune, “Love in the Ruins.”

For encores, Braun sang his tautly crafted “These Tears” and a Texas-sized version of The Beatles classic “Revolution.”

It was another cultural story with the Los Angeles-based Listing Ship, whose refreshing deviation from musical normality begins with its instrumentation — including violin, viola and acoustic bass (bowed) and vibraphone. None of the singers is very special, individually, but they often team up in harmonized melodies and sing lyrics containing dark irony and words you’ll never find in the Bible.

Conventional musical polish isn’t the goal here. In general, the admittedly gawky aspects of their musical presentation are in keeping with their persona, as a project far to the left of any mainstream genre. They’re prone to adapt various alternative attitudes — from the realms of punk, art pop and musical folk art. While their music is undoubtedly an acquired taste, for those with the taste, Listing Ship is onto something new and engagingly offbeat.

In between the contrasting acts came some nutty seasonal merriment from the management. Series organizer Peggie Jones came out in her trademark gaudy thrift store dress and lavished awards on the Lobero crew, who came onstage in wrestling masks and with wrestling-style nicknames. Series honcho Hale Milgrim then worked the theater aisles, like a kindlier David Letterman, asking rock trivia questions and passing out CD boxed sets to lucky crowd members.

In all, it was another fine holiday edition evening in “Hell.”

This unique subscription-based concert series can have the feel of a monthly concert club. Regulars converge to partake of often obscure music worth hearing. The adventure continues.