Ain’t that far away: Warner E. Hodges & The Western Sizzlers live at Dingwalls, London, 7 Dec 2014
"Y’all can come down here. You don’t have to be scared of the rock music."
And so Warner E. Hodges sets his trap.
I’m at Dingwalls in Camden and, so far, the six-foot gap in front of the stage has remained empty, despite two bands having already, in the parlance of the evening, rocked the place. As David Sinclair from openers David Sinclair Four noted, there are enough guitars racked up by the side of the stage to open an instrument shop. And as I’m noting now, one of those guitars belongs to Mr Rick Richards of Georgia Satellites fame, so you can be sure that the place had been rocked in a full and proper fashion, too.
I last saw Rick doing his thing with the Dan Baird-less Satellites at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in February 1997 - nearly 18 years ago. Tonight he’s playing with The Western Sizzlers, a toe-tapping, dandruff-loosening, Atlanta-based five-piece fronted by an Englishman, Kevin Jennings, whose CV includes drum-teching for Jason and the Scorchers and road-managing the Satellites (he’s also credited on the Open All Night LP as providing “inspiration”).
As well as writing all the Sizzlers’ songs, Kevin brings some good old pub-rock charm to the band’s Southern-fried sound - which, ignited by Rick’s rhythm guitar and torched by Nicky Ford’s lead, does a lot more than sizzle. The ghost of Hank Williams might haunt the lyrics - with songs titled Can’t Win For Losing and I’ll Die A Happy Man If It Kills Me, it’s clear that Jennings likes to drink the country spirit - but no lonesome whistles are blown tonight; just ear drums. Three songs in, the band steam into Status Quo’s Break The Rules, just in case there are people watching who haven’t yet spotted the influence.
Yes, The Western Sizzlers are boogie men. But, like Warner says, there’s no reason to be scared.
Seven years on from the first Warner E. Hodges solo album, Centerline, and its accompanying UK tour, it’s good to see the guitarist, who made his name in Jason and the Scorchers, taking centre-stage again. Since then a lot has happened. He’s joined Dan Baird & Homemade Sin to record two studio LPs and embark on numerous tours, and reunited with the Scorchers to unleash a new record, Halcyon Times, and take that show on the road. He’s also recorded three albums and toured with The Bluefields, alongside Joe Blanton, Dan Baird and Brad Pemberton. And lastly, but not at all leastly, he’s recorded a new solo LP, Gunslinger, which was released in October this year.
Though the record was recorded with his Bluefields buddies, it’s a brand new band that joins him tonight and through the rest of this week-long tour, as special guests to headliners the Mick Ralphs Blues Band. Ex-Bonafide guitarist Mikael Fässberg impresses as Warner’s right-hand man - his cool, collected demeanour often belying the raucous sounds he’s making - while John Powney and Jason Knight, on drums and bass respectively, form what I’d be tempted to call a rock-solid rhythm section, if it wasn’t committing the crime of cliché. (Yep, I’ve still got my cake, despite having just eaten it.)
In the interests of transparency, I must declare that Jason is a friend. I must also declare that he’s exactly like he is on stage when he’s off stage, in the audience, watching gigs. He’s impossible to lose in a venue - you just have to look for the shaking, hairy head in front of the stage. And tonight, if he wasn’t up there I know full well that he’d be down here, doing exactly the same thing - sans bass, sure, but with the same backing vocals. In fact, he’s having such a ball on stage that I start to suspect he joined the band as a cunning ruse to avoid paying for tickets and ensure that he has the best view in the house every night.
Says a proud Warner: “This is the second show, the third day, that I’ve ever played with these guys.” It doesn’t show. At all.
Of course, watching Warner play guitar is as thrilling as ever. When I see a great player, what strikes me is how natural they make the art seem - it’s like they’re just going for a walk. It’s fascinating: I see the tightrope he’s often on as clear as day, but Warner doesn’t even know it’s there. He’s an engaging frontman, too. “What did y’all think of the acoustic show?” he asks, referring to last week’s Homemade Sin gig at St Pancras Old Church. “All I know is that I froze to fuckin’ death. We did have a good time, but it was weird sitting there on top of dead bodies… I’ve never done anything like that.”
He introduces the woozy Messwitmycranium, my favourite song on the new record, as an homage to T-Rex whose words don’t make any sense, and banters with the crowd over who in the room holds the attendance record for AC/DC gigs. Warner has seen them 105 times, 46 of those with Bon Scott - though it turns out that Kevin Jennings has notched up 16 gigs at the Marquee, so Warner declares him the winner.
Warner says that when he and Kevin used to room together on tour, Kevin was obsessed with AC/DC’s Powerage LP, and played it “constantly for two fuckin’ years”. Despite this, Warner is still a huge fan. “On every record I do,” he says, “I try to do some form of an AC/DC song and, y’know, get real close to basically stealing, and I don’t care.”
His tribute on this new record is The Hard Way, and it sounds fantastic - and, yep, very much like AC/DC. At its close, someone shouts for Down Payment Blues. “Oh God, I could do it,” says Warner. “I’ve done it! I’ve done it with Dan Baird singing the motherfucker!”
Seven songs from Gunslinger are aired tonight, including the crunchy title track, the metallic Hell And Back, and the windswept Ain’t That Far Away. Curiously, there’s no material from Centerline, but there are two Mikael Fässberg tunes (Parade, sung by Mikael, and a Bonafide song from 2009 called Dog), plus Bob Dylan’s Absolutely Sweet Marie and John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads - two songs that the Scorchers made their own through the '80s and '90s, which tonight make the perfect celebratory set-closers.
“Will y’all sing with me?” asks Warner before Country Roads. “You will sing with me? If you don’t sing then I’ll just stop.” We sing. He doesn’t stop. God damn it, he’s got us: we’re having a good time. And, like all good parties, this one started with an invitation: “Y’all can come down here.”
Or, as we say in London, mind the gap.
Now, how 'bout we finish with a song? Here’s Absolutely Sweet Marie. Turn it up and steer clear of hard surfaces.