Hank III and Assjack
The Grand Ballroom
February 28, 2009
Better than: "That shit they call pop country music." Don't even get the dude started.
"The barbarians have invaded the opera," my friend observed, taking in the radical aesthetic disjunction between the gilt trim and crystal chandeliers of the Grand Ballroom and the decidedly rough-around-the-edges crowd that had assembled for Saturday night's Hank III and Assjack shindig. After an appropriately rowdy set by opening act Those Poor Bastards, who quit the stage with a promise to "see you all in hell," we amused ourselves by perambulating about and reading the slogans on the predominantly black T-shirts the barbarians had deported themselves in. "Mommy, can I go out and kill?" was rubbing elbows with "Stupidity is not a crime," while "Go fuck yourself" and "Honky tonkin' and hellbilly rockin'" nursed plastic cups of beer. My personal favorite, "Trust no bitch," stood alone, possibly the victim of intimacy issues.
If the crowd came with attitude, it also came with divergent musical affiliations, if the T-shirts were any indication. Fans of David Allan Coe, Johnny Cash (flipping the bird, of course), and something called the Texas as Fuck Tour '86 on the one hand had seemingly found common ground with aficionados of Motorhead, AC/DC, the Pogues, and Dead Kennedys on the other. A mom in a Slayer shirt took camera-phone pictures of her young metalhead charges. Damn, the edgiest thing I ever got to do as a kid was go to an Amy Grant concert.
When Hank III and his band took the stage around 9:30, the motley assemblage of T-shirts began to make sense. There was a double bass, a banjo, a lap steel, drums, Hank III on acoustic guitar, and a fiddler, for crying out loud, but the sound that issued forth was hardly that of your granddaddy's hoedown. The music owed as much to the frenetic energy of punk and the devil-may-care attitude of metal as to the country twang purveyed by Hank III's forebears, the Hank Williamses Jr. and (most notably) Sr. Picking up where Those Poor Bastards had left off, Hank III and Co. immediately launched into a rendition of "Straight to Hell" (off of his third release of the same title), and the crowd completely lost its shit. Something resembling a highly choreographed silent-movie barfight broke out immediately in front of the stage, with audience members cycling in and out of the vortex of a large circle, engaged in what may best be described as full-body-contact dancing.
The first third of the show largely consisted of songs off of Straight to Hell and Hank III's latest release, Damn Right, Rebel Proud: "Thrown out of the Bar," "Six Pack of Beer," and "Pills I Took" established a crowd-pleasing early theme of substance abuse that never really subsided over the course of the evening, while such numbers as "Country Heroes," "Cocaine Blues" (made most famous by Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison), daddy Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition," and granddaddy Hank Williams Sr.'s "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" (the last single released during his lifetime) served to locate III in the country-music tradition that he both upholds and upsets. To that end, he took a minute to "call bullshit" on the Grand Ole Opry for failing to reinstate Hank Sr. after his death (he had been dismissed in 1952 with orders to sober up) before launching into a rendition of "The Grand Ole Opry [Ain't So Grand Anymore]."
The final two thirds of the night's performance tracked a steady evolution into unbridled musical id. The middle third featured the same lineup as the first, only with Hank III on electric guitar, creating a sound in the vein of the hidden-track song medley on the second disc of Straight to Hell. Finally, the lineup changed entirely and the punk-metal outfit Assjack took the stage - and didn't relinquish it until nearly midnight, turning the proceedings from concert into endurance contest, with III (also Assjack's guitarist) repeatedly exhorting the crowd, somewhat in amazement, "Y'all are still here! Still hangin' with us!" (Slayer Mom and posse stuck around till the end, to their eternal credit.) I got the impression that the self-professed "hellbilly" hadn't expected much in the way of love from a San Francisco crowd. It seems that his stated goal of "grannies, punks, kids in black, and cowboys all in the same room getting the fuck along" had materialized, at least for this evening.
Personal bias: For a couple of hours after the show, I was seriously considering moving back to Texas.
Random detail: This is the only country show I've ever attended where I've been frisked by a security guard before entry.
By the way: Go to www.reinstatehank.org to sign the petition to get Hank Williams Sr. reinstated at the Grand Ole Opry.