This time, I bought tickets a few minutes after they went on sale and scored seats in the fifth row on the floor. The opening act was Heidi Newfield, whose name you might not recognize. I had no idea who she was; I thought she was a very new act, but she's got one single out that I really do like a lot, "Johnny and June." She sings about wanting "to love like Johnny and June" and manages a pretty moving love story about Johnny Cash and June (Carter) Cash.
It turns out that Heidi Newfield was the lead singer for Trick Pony until a couple of years ago, so if you liked "Pour Me" ("Poor me . . . poor me . . . pour me another shot of whiskey . . .") or "Heartache" you would have heard those last night. Her voice is amazing, and she can wail on a harmonica. She's also got this piano player, (Correction: Dave Lagrande, not "Mcgrand.") who was playing rockabilly piano solos and then jumping to get a saxophone strapped on so he could burn that up, too. It was a great show, but there was one problem that I couldn't get past: the crowd.
Springfield has a reputation for this kind of thing. They have a "convention center" and concert hall, and it seems like the only acts that can fill it are monster trucks and motocross. Musicians and sports teams get booked, fill the place half full, and struggle to get the crowd to look interested. After each act gets tired of this and takes their show elsewhere, everyone then complains that there's nothing to do in Springfield and it's a boring backwater. Newfield and her band were tearing it up last night. There wasn't much slow stuff, and the songs that sound a little pale on the radio (which is a lot of modern country music, to my ear) were rocking along with a lot of fire. The band was obviously having a great time playing, but they were looking at each other a lot. Newfield, for her part, was trying to get people to do something--anything--out in the crowd. We were clapping our hands over our heads, singing along (well, I shout along) and getting out of our seats, but we felt a little lonely at it. When Newfield belted out the first song, Esperanza's comment was "She's perfect. I hate her." When she played her last song, My Bride's verdict had changed: "I feel so sorry for her. I told her 'Thank you, you did a good job' in sign language. I bet she wonders what she did wrong."
I had to wonder myself. Did these people all have some sort of personal grudge against Heidi Newfield? Or maybe they were feuding against the idea of fun on a Friday night? Maybe they just needed to be more drunk. We both wondered what the Montgomery Gentry show would be like with this sleepy crowd of dispassionate observers.
We needn't have worried too much. Those guys started the show behind huge translucent curtains with their shadows projected about 15 feet tall. As "The Big Revival" began with bass thumping and an old-time preacher howling about brimstone and sin, you could see these giant shadows dance and watch one of them spinning something like a creepy scythe (that turned out to be Eddie Montgomery's microphone stand, which he carried all over the stage and spun, twirled and tossed in true Steven Tyler fashion--if Steven Tyler were a big bald guy in a cowboy hat.)
Reverend Jones, he struts and dances
while the guitar plays " Amazing Grace".
He testifies in tongues of fire
with tears of joy runnin' down his face.
He ain't sure and we ain't sure exactly what he said.
But praise the lord and pass me a copperhead.
That'll get the night started, all right. And yes, a lot of this music has a religious component to it. And yes, I'm an atheist. But I like to think I'm not the sumbitch kind of atheist everybody hates. You know that guy--he's the one who would turn up his nose at a wild rockabilly show because a lot of rockabilly music is about going to church. There's a reason nobody likes that guy. Don't be that guy.
We were on our feet the rest of the night, singing along, waving hands, and having a good old time. We're hoarse this morning, and my shoulders feel like I've been painting ceilings, but it was well worth it. Those guys have enough hits that they can play mostly radio singles all night, and people love it. More than that, they put on a fantastic show. There aren't a lot of effects--the curtains are about as wild as that gets--but the band is all over the stage. They've got one guitarist who looks like Carlos Santana and one who looks like a cross between a young Charles Bronson and Mark Wahlberg (but, hey, I'm not jealous of that good-looking guitar-playing bodybuilder . . . he's probably a jerk. Or something. Seriously, this guy looked like he was created in a lab in an attempt to breed a new master race of ubermensch, but somewhere along the way he discovered the power of rock n' roll. There may be a movie in there somewhere.) Anyway, those guys are all over the stage, too, so wherever you were in that front section, they spent a lot of time singing and playing directly at you, and made a lot of eye contact.
The end of the show was bizarre. Of course, they had to do the "encore" song-and-dance, where they yell "Goodnight!" and everyone runs off the stage. Will they be back? Are they really going to leave without doing "My Town?" Well, since the ticket says the show lasts from 7:30 to 11:00, and it's now 10:35 . . . . . I think they might come back out. On the other hand, the crowd was back to its former limpness. I wouldn't have blamed them too very much if they'd said to hell with Springfield and sent the roadies out to start tearing down the stage. There didn't seem to be much demand for the encore from what we could hear, but we tried to make some noise.
They did come out and play "My Town" and end with "Gone." But between those two, they called to the back and had John Daly come out with a guitar. What John Daly is doing on tour with Montgomery Gentry I don't claim to know, but they are sponsored by Jim Beam, so draw your own conclusions. Anyroad, Daly came out with Troy's white guitar and led the crowd in a rendition of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." I thought that was a good pick, because most people have only heard Bob Dylan and Axl Rose do it, so it's not like you're trying to fill Johnny Cash's shoes. I sing a lot of Willie Nelson for the same reason. If you can't handle a note, just take it down a little and let your voice waver a bit--people are used to that on Willie Nelson songs.
Daly was terrible at first; he was late with the chorus literally every time for about eight repetitions. That song is mostly chorus, so this wasn't sounding too good. Esperanza, a trained singer, was covering her ears. But his voice wasn't bad for rock n' roll, and he caught up with the chorus a little better in the second stanza. "He's winning me over!" I yelled in her ear. She grimaced at me. By the third stanza, he was right on and doing a better job than Axl Rose did on the studio version. He was singing it like Dylan, and Bo Garrett (Santana) was playing the guitar solos like Slash. It was a surprisingly good mix. I have to admit, I didn't even know the song had a fourth stanza, about mama putting his golf shoes in the ground because he can't make cuts anymore. Who knew that song was about golf?
Anyway, if you see this show in your town with a good crowd, you'll have the time of your life. If you see it with a limp crowd of blouse-wearing poodle-walkers, like we did, you still have the option of having a great time, but people may look at you a little funny as they sip their Diet Pepsi in their folding chairs. I kind of enjoy those looks, but your mileage may vary.