Junior Brown at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, March 31 2012

The pretext on which I dragged three colleagues to McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston last Saturday night was pretty simple–we can’t miss the chance to see one of America’s musical wildmen. The particular wildman is, of course, Junior Brown, king of the git-steel.

Roots rock is a particular passion here at AHC and I could bore you all silly on the subject. But what would be the point of that? The Greek philosophers noted the dangerous possibilities of music and that’s the attraction of 4/4 time with a strong backbeat and a healthy dose of twang.

Junior twangs. He also croons, growls and yodels. And most of that it is in the service of self-penned songs delivered in a Cash-like baritone. All while wearing the shiniest suit I’ve ever seen, a fine slouch hat and picking at his mo-chine. Did I mention that he has the longest face in a country-esque performer since the Basset-faced Ernest Tubb?

If Junior couldn’t sing a note we’d probably still know who he was because of his pickin’. Simply put, the man plays his ass off. The current set gives ample opportunity for him to strut his stuff on the fretboard. Here’s the start of the set:

  1. Broke Down South of Dallas
  2. Party Lights
  3. Lifeguard Larry
  4. My Wife Thinks You’re Dead
  5. I Hung It Up
  6. Long Walk Back to San Antone
  7. Peelin’ Taters
  8. Benny Hill Theme
  9. Freeborn Man
  10. Phantom of the Opry

We also got a surf medley that’s morphed to include Beach Blanket Bingo, Highway Patrol and a bunch of others, but no encore. There were a couple of numbers new to me, including a screamingly funny dissection of cell phone use while driving. It takes a unique worldview to see a cell phone as a microwave oven pressed to the ear and that’s what Junior offers. No philosophy. No navel gazing. No introspection. Just fun.

Now, about that fretboard shredding, I should really say fretboards. That thing he calls a git steel has a standard guitar neck (looks like a Tele to me) and a lap steel. And Junior switches between them seemingly at a whim. That’s not an easy trick to pull off. The steel is played with a bar held atop the strings and between fingers splayed to control the vibrato and location. The regular neck is played with the fretting hand grabbing the strings from below. They’re dissimilar enough that Jerry Garcia stopped playing both in the same set to save himself the trouble. That’s in the same set, not the same song. Junior one ups everyone by playing the standard neck as well as anyone regularly quoting Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Dick Dale and other fretboard Gods.

The band was tight and featured Mrs. Junior, Tonya Raye Brown, on rhythm guitar and a young rhythm section. While the bass player kept a steady pulse going the drummer seemed intent on wearing out a set of brushes on his minimalist kit. He was of the Slim Jim Phantom school and so sported only a cymbal, snare and kick drum. You really don’t need more than that no matter what the mega-kit school says.

The Mucky Duck is a great club to see a show, by the way. Well, that one pillar in front of the stage screws up some sight lines but overall it was great. The price ($30 after fees) was not excessive. The choice of 30 or so beers on tap, including local brews and such much-loved but rarely encountered faves as Old Speckled Hen and Belhaven, was appreciated. And the room was small enough to be 25 feet from the stage at the bar yet not so small as too be packed.

When Junior comes to your town, change your plans, spend some time with the master.

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