Concert Review: Bill Kirchen’s Honky Tonk Holiday Show @ The Hangar on the Hudson, 12/3/2022

TROY – Bill Kirchen’s Honky Tonk Holiday Show made its annual stop at the Hangar on the Hudson Saturday night. I can sum up the sumptuous two sets by saying Bill and his Silent Knights (Jack Saunders on bass and drummer Rick Richards) were perfect but never perfunctory.

Bill Kirchen

Perfection in rock and roll in most cases is an oxymoron. By its very nature, the best rock and roll is rowdy and, if it’s done right, far from perfect in the classic definition of the word. But Bill Kirchen is unique in his style. In his 60-year career, he’s perfected a kind of twisted rock and roll. His sound has been labeled psycho folk-rock, twangcore, dieselbilly, and most recently Americana, a catchall moniker for any sound that cuts across genres. He slams every song home, but never hits a sour note. And while performing the right notes, he takes his fans on a ride in his “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

That’s his best-known number, recorded originally with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Writing about the tune in 2013, I said the song cemented the image of the band as hellraisers painting broad-stroke caricatures of southern life with a kind of energy that was all rock, but with a nod to a lifestyle that until that point had nothing to do with long hair. “Anybody who writes takes a stance where they’re not necessarily that character, “Kirchen explained to me.

Saturday night Bill sang, “Dee says you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop drivin’ that hot rod Lincoln.” Dee is John Tichy’s wife. Tichy founded Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen with Cody (the late George Frayne) and Kirchen and got on stage during both sets. His wife sat next to me in the audience. Not knowing who she was, I asked her if she’d ever seen Kirchen before. “I’ve known him since I was 19,” she responded. We talked about Kirchen’s colorful history, with her noting that “each year Kirchen gets better.” It’s not hyperbole to say that he was spectacular Saturday night.

Bill Kirchen
Bill Kirchen, 2015 (photo by Ed Conway)

Kirchen told his fans he was going to sing “holiday songs of questionable taste,” which he did on numbers that included “Reindeer Boogie,” “Truckin’ Trees for Christmas,” “Louisiana Holiday,” Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” “Chuck Berry’s “Run Reindeer Run” (with Tichy), and “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” by Sir Mack Rice (who also wrote “Mustang Sally.”)

Some of his best numbers were songs unrelated to the season. “Ain’t Got Time for the Blues” was originally recorded in England with Maria Muldaur and showcased Kirchen’s talent on an uncharacteristic ballad. He dedicated his original “Rocks Into Sand” to John Tichy. A tour de force on guitar, it contains the lyrics:

Now the sands will shift and the earth’s gonna roll
The rocks and the rain will collect their toll
And all I’ll take is what I brought
And I may not get what I sought
Whether I sink or I fall
That’s up to the shifting sands after all
Before fish ever walked on land
Time was turning rocks into sand

“Word to The Wise,” from Asleep at The Wheel’s 50th anniversary album, was another standout. “Cryin’ Time Again,” “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” “Cell Block Number 9” and “Midnight Shift” featured John Tichy on guitar and duet vocals. 

Kirchen ended the night with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’.” He dropped in a mention of yellow hair in the verse that says:

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
‘Cause the battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times, they are a-changin’

It was one of those nights where everything clicked perfectly and worked: the artists, the band, the fans, the venue. Live music is the substance for our souls.

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