Diesel Smoke & Dangerous Chords: Bill Kirchen at HPT

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There’s a certain retro coolness that happens at a Bill Kirchen concert. From his twagcentric Telecaster guitar made from reclaimed wood salvaged from historic New York buildings, to his nostalgic setlist, laced with honky-tonk tunes about wine, weed, and speedy hot rod races, Kirchen’s Saturday show at the Honokaa People’s Theatre was a night to remember.

In case you hadn’t heard about the self-crowned King of Dieselbilly, Kirchen co-founded Commander Cody & his Lost Planet Airmen, a pioneering country-rock band that had a Top Ten hit in ’72 with “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Kirchen grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and migrated with his bandmates to San Francisco in 1969. The band thrived in the Bay Area, both on hippie rock radio and the city’s vibrant concert hall scene. The band was even invited to join the American Indian Movement during their occupation of the famed prison on Alcatraz island.

The music incarnation of country-rock started in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and Commander Cody’s hippie honky-tonk satire sound, blended well with groups like the Flying Burrito Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, and NRBQ. The Airmen’s first two albums—Lost in the Ozone and Hot Licks, Cold Steel, and Trucker’s Favorites—produced several FM classics, including “Seeds and Stems Again Blues,” and “Mama Hated Diesels.” When the group disbanded in 1976, Kirchen pursued a solo career and played with Nick Lowe, Doug Sahm, Elvis Costello, Gene Vincent, Link Wray, and Hoyt Axton.

Kirchen, 70, now lives in Austin, Texas, and shows no sign of slowing down. He has 11 solo recordings in his catalog, and his recent two-hour Honokaa concert was filled with brilliant showmanship, dry wit, and a deep well of captivating songs. It was his Big Island concert debut.

I had a brief pre-show chat with Kirchen about his custom-made R.C. Kelly Telecaster. “Yeah, this guy Kelly has a shop in Greenwich Village, and you can barely move around once you’re in there. He uses reclaimed wood, and this guitar was made with pine from (indie filmmaker) Jim Jarmusch’s former loft.”

The medium-sized crowd seemed to be filled with haole hipsters who were familiar with Kirchen’s music and even a shouted out a request for “Mama Hated Diesels.” A few energetic ladies tried to get the show going before the band was on stage and the audience was forced to listen to the odd choice of Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits coming through the speakers. They did one of those slow-single-concert-claps that builds to a momentum as others join in – but only a few participated. Perhaps if the venue served cold beer instead of hot popcorn it would’ve been a more raucous affair.

Kirchen’s trio featured Commander Cody’s original drummer, Steve Barbuto, and Tim Eschliman on bass. Eschliman was a member of Kirchen’s mid-1970’s band The Moonlighters, who “moonlighted” from the Lost Planet Airmen.

In one of his between-song commentaries, Kirchen mentioned he was only using one pedal with a loud button “that goes to 11.” While writing this review I asked local guitarist and fellow Big Island Music Magazine contributor Eric Burkhardt for some technical clarification on the pedal and what he observed at the concert. “It looked like he was using a [Hep Cat] Frantone which is technically an overdrive pedal, but from what he said, he must just have it set to give a clean volume boost… As much as I admire creative use of guitar pedals, Americana is a genre that benefits from its spare use; and most of the effects at the show came from Bill’s fingers and really masterful use of that R.C. Kelly T-Style guitar’s control panel, switching between the bridge and neck pick-up and, especially the volume and tone controls.”

There were many highlights in the setlist including what Kirchen referred to as the “Hazardous Cargo Trilogy” of tunes that dealt with Dexedrine, marijuana and booze. Perhaps the crown jewel of the evening was an extended 11-minute version of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” that featured a savory music mimicry, topped with a soupçon of guitarists, and others: Roy Orbison, Duane Eddy, Johnny Rivers, Marty Robbins, The Ventures, Iggy Pop & The Stooges, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Link Wray, Aldo Wray, Martha Raye, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ray Charles, Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert King, Ben E. King, Carol King, Don King, Billie Jean King, Elvis (The King), Cream, Deep Purple, Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Sex Pistols, and Jimi Hendrix.

Kirchen wrapped up the main segment of the concert with his own vigorous version of the Dylan standard “The Times They Are a Changin’.’’ Kirchen said he began covering the Sixties anthem as a reaction to Barack Obama’s initial run for president.  A former “folkie,” Kirchen witnessed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965. “As a young 17-year-old kid, it wrecked me from normal work from that point on,” reminisced Kirchen.

The guitarist said he didn’t care for the predictable calls for an encore after the last song, adding, “If you want to leave at that point, no jury will ever convict you.” Kirchen didn’t disappoint and returned to the stage with his trio for another 20 minutes of music. After the show was over, he walked out into the crowd and spent some personal time with those who stayed behind.

Setlist
Get a Little Goner | Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods | Rocks into Sand | Heart of Gold | Man in the Bottom of the Well | Wine, Wine, Wine, Do Your Stuff (Barbuto on lead vocals) | Seeds and Stems Again Blues | Semi-Truck | Hurry Babe (Eschliman on lead vocals) | Think it Over | Too Much Fun | One More Day |Hot Rod Lincoln |Sleep Walk | Time Will Tell | The Times They Are A-Changin’

Encore
Mama Hated Diesels (short version) | Truck Stop at the End of the World | Rockabilly Funeral | Riot in Cell Block Number Nine


Visit Bill Kirchen online: https://www.billkirchen.com

Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby

You can read my interview with Bill Kirchen here: https://www.bigislandmusic.net/talking-story-with-bill-kirchen/

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