So I guess I’m the only one who had never heard of Scott H. Biram? Just about everyone I talked to at the Middle East last night seemed surprised when I said I didn’t know who he was. Apparently he’s got this enormous national and international fan base thanks to years and years of endless touring, but then again, I can be an oblivious bastard so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I had gone down to catch Wicked Whiskey and the Ten Foot Polecats, both of which I had seen a few months back (WW only for a song or two) and was eager to catch again. Long story short, I lucked out, because I got introduced to some great music I had never heard before, and caught an insanely good show in the process.
The Ten Foot Polecats may very well be one of the best kept secrets in the Boston music scene. This is the second time I’ve seen a Polecats set, and I was amazed to see the EXACT same thing happen during both shows. As the 3-piece outfit takes the stage, you hear the same whispers – “Who are these guys?” “What do they sound like?” “Is the guitarist just going to sit down on that chair throughout the entire set?” “They don’t have a bassist?” Inevitably, as per usual in Boston when the crowd doesn’t know the band, everyone heads to the bar to grab a beer, or otherwise occupies themselves away from the stage. Then the music starts, and by the time the first song is halfway through everyone in the club has meandered back up to the stage to check out the sweet sounds coming out the PA. By about midway through TFPC’s set people start filing in from outside based on what they can hear through the walls (in this case they were swarming in from the Middle East Upstairs’ restaurant), and by the time the set is over they have a raucous crowd screaming their applause after every song! This is blues that people of all ages, all musical preferences, and all walks of life can get into. Their recorded tracks on their website are great, but even though they’re all done in a single take with no mastering they really don’t do justice to the energy they bring to bear for their live sets.
The ‘Polecats got things started off right on Tuesday with their own take on Robert Johnson‘s “Dead Shrimp Blues.” While the original is a little bit on the slow, mellow, and understated side, TFPC’s version was fast, upbeat, and flat-out rockin’! Songs like this really help draw the crowd in – and once guitarist Jim Chilson started with his jaw-dropping solos everyone was hooked. Chilson’s guitar style is riveting – all finger picking, and its amazing how he manages to hit bass notes on his low strings while shredding up solos and complicated riffage on the highs. Coupled with Dave Darling’s work on the kick and the toms, the lows hit hard enough to reverberate your ribcage and make you forget that there’s no bassist in the band. I don’t know if there are any other guitarists in this city who can even come close to rivaling Chilson in terms of speed and intricacy while looking so laid-back and nonchalant up on stage.
Ten Foot Polecats – “Dead Shrimp Blues”
What really sets the Ten Foot Polecats apart from other blues acts that most people are familiar with is lead singer Jay Scheffler’s voice, which sounds like he’s spent the past 10 years alternating between shots of whiskey and shots of broken glass. The harsh gravelly vocals really allow Scheffler to convey the emotion so important for a good blues song, while also sounding interesting and, well, badass enough to draw the people into their music who would otherwise have different preferences. The guy’s no slouch on the harmonica either – he cranked up the distortion on his harp mic and ripped through some down and dirty licks on several occasions throughout the set.
The Ten Foot Polecats laced a number of covers in with their originals throughout the set, and exhibited a wide range of styles in their music as well. In addition to the Robert Johnson tune, they covered songs by RL Burnside, Tommy Johnson, and T-Model Ford, choosing to do each in their signature style rather than mirror the sound of the originals. Most of their own material had an old Delta feel to it (with a definitive edge, of course), but the track “So Good To Me” features a riff and structure straight out of a Black Keys album. All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable set, and I see bigger and better things on the horizon for this band as the word gets out about them. They’ll be in Boston again in a couple of weeks – August 24th at All Asia in Central Square – check them out and prepare to get as hooked on them as I am!
Wicked Whiskey took the stage next, featuring a great mix of acoustic guitar, hollowbody electric, and upright bass. WW’s roots are drenched in rockabilly for sure, but there are definite surf-rock tendencies to their sound as well – assisted in large part by drummer Jay’s full-scale assault on his toms and the manic guitar lines. Guitarist Chuck laid down the band’s signature sound with his hollowbody riffs, laid out over the smooth texture of singer/guitarist JK’s mellow acoustic chords. Their style was accentuated well by Macky’s frantic bass thumping, leading to a full and rich sound that’s easy to tap a foot or nod your head to.
Wicked Whiskey mixed some covers into their set as well – most notably represented were the Misfits and the Boss. (OK OK that last link isn’t really all that related to this article… but its so incredible it had to be included. Check it out, you can thank me later.) Their originals were well-crafted, impossibly catchy, and made you want to sing along to the chorus – regardless of whether you’d ever heard the song before. My personal favorite was “Westbound Train,” which is featured on their CD and Myspace page – but we’ll make it easy for you and let you check it out right here! Its a bit more mellow than some of their other offerings, but has a driving aspect to it that really draws you into the track. Lead singer JK’s raspy croon set the tone, and he was easily able to make the transition from slower, more relaxed ballads to upbeat, driving psychobilly action – a big jump in some cases, but his vocal style sounded perfectly natural in each setting.
Wicked Whiskey – “Westbound Train”
Wicked Whiskey features a great blend of rock, country, surf-rock, rockabilly, and punk that will appeal to fans of each genre. They change up tempos song to song, they feature well-thought-out harmonies throughout their tunes, and show themselves to be accomplished musicians without appearing flashy or overbearing. All in all Wicked Whiskey put on a great set, well worth checking out as soon as you possibly can. Their next Boston gig is this Saturday, August 15th, at the Hot Rod and Motorcycle Rally down at Church – be there!
Scott H Biram closed out the night at the Middle East, just another stop on his seemingly never-ending tour schedule. Heading into the show I had no idea what to expect from the “Dirty Old One Man Band” from Texas – was it just going to be a singer-songwriter guy with an acoustic guitar up on stage, wailing about love lost and being generally sappy and overemotional? Was it going to be some asshole with a bass drum strapped to his back and an accordion, a la Mary Poppins? Or was it going to be a That One Guy type of situation with a single person on stage playing all sorts of instruments and looping them together? Nope, none of the above. Definitely, definitely none of the above.
Before I go on, let me give you this excerpt from Biram’s website – it may shed a little light on what type of guy he is. “On May 11th, 2003, one month after being hit head-on by an 18-wheeler at 75 MPH, he took the stage at The Continental Club in Austin, TX in a wheel chair – I.V. still dangling from his arm. With 2 broken legs, a broken foot, a broken arm, and 1 foot less of his lower intestine, Biram unleashed his trademark musical wrath.” Starting to get the picture yet? Oh yeah, if that wasn’t enough, he also broke his leg on a European tour earlier this year and got a rod and 4 screws inserted into his leg. But he’s still touring – incessantly. That’s about as badass as badass gets, hands down. (check out these pictures if you can handle it… but holy shit, not for the faint of heart.)
I came up to the stage as Biram was getting started, an unassuming guy rockin’ a trucker hat and a handlebar ‘stache, gripping an old Gibson and surrounded by a whole mess of grungy old amplifiers. His foot was hooked up with a kick drum and tambourine, allowing him to keep a pervading beat by stomping along to his muddy guitar licks. His mic had a distortion device set up to give a gritty electric quality to his vocals. This made it especially interesting when bantering with the crowd – he was a little drunk and kind of mumbled like Boomhauer anyway, so couple this with the distorted mic and it made him especially hard to understand. No one seemed to mind though – he had a great rapport with the crowd, just drinking beers, playing songs, and bullshitting with his fans.
Biram is certainly a talented guitarist, but after the clinic put on by Chilson of the ‘Polecats and the frenzied riffs from Chuck of Wicked Whiskey, he seemed a little more tame and pedestrian by comparison. His music wasn’t about wowing you with his chops though, it was more about laying down grimy blues riffs you could gnaw on like a piece of beef jerky. Between the riffs, the down-home feeling of his stomped percussion, and his distorted, cutting, and altogether dirty voice, he put on quite an incredible show. On a few occasions he added a harmonica to his repertoire as well, which added an entirely new element to his style. The crowd certainly responded well to his brand of infectious bluesy country sleaze – they were cheering raucously and screaming out requests throughout the entire set. How many acts from Texas playing the Middle East on a Tuesday night get that kind of treatment?
On a side note, Biram certainly wins the award for best merch table I’ve ever seen at the Middle East. He had shirts, underwear, and skateboard decks for sale with slogans like “Jesus Loves Scott H Biram,” and “Texas as Fuck.” My personal favorite, though, was only available as a sticker – if he had it printed on a shirt I would have bought it in a second… “Scott H Biram – The H Stands for Fuck You.” GENIUS! Between the music, the merch, and his crusty laid-back attitude, I can honestly say that I’m now a big fan, and will be sure to be on the lookout for the next time he comes to town. Judging by how often he’s out on tour, I’d guess that would be sooner rather than later, which works just fine for me.