Red Meat: An excellent source of honky-tonk twang
The Bay Area-based band Red Meat mixes country, rockabilly, western swing, gospel-style harmonies, and warmly irreverent fun into their own infectious blend of honky-tonk twang. After a summer tour through the Midwest, Red Meat is back in California and The Palms Playhouse in Winters is serving up two sets’ worth of Red Meat on Saturday, Aug. 24 starting at 8 p.m.
Red Meat bears the stamp of the five members’ Midwestern and Ozark upbringings in their vocal harmonies and dance-on-the-sawdust honky-tonk arrangements, the ’60s and ’70s rock music they grew up listening to in their bass groove and telecaster guitar solos, and the effervescent sense of humor of their adopted home base of the San Francisco Bay Area in their lyrics and banter. Red Meat combines all these influences into a sound and live show in which the country and honky-tonk twang is in cheerful coexistence with an exuberant, almost post-punk, rock ‘n’ roll sensibility.
Case in point: A song that kicks off with scorching fiddle, launches into tight bluegrass-style harmony vocals, includes tasty guitar fills that would be right at home in a song about long-distance trucking, a foot-stompingly danceable beat — and is an ode to a “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan.” In other hands this might be a deadly laughable combination, but with Red Meat at the helm audiences break into grins as they are swept up into the music and a particular kind of joy of meeting the ridiculous head-on.
This is not to say that all of Red Meat’s songs are on off-the-wall topics. Jill Olson’s “Thriftstore Cowgirl” combines a roots-rock feel with subtly wistful lyrics, and her “Broken Up and Blue” was included in the soundtrack to “Monster’s Ball” (and was played as Halle Berry stepped forward to accept her Best Actress Oscar for her role in that movie). Scott Young, the band’s primary songwriter and musical arranger, has penned songs ranging from “Honky-Tonk Habit” that would have been right at home in Bakersfield’s country heyday to the just slightly tongue-in-cheek “Girl With The Biggest Hair” to the all-out rollicking fun of, yes, “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan.”
While lead singing duties are shared between Young, Olson, and Smelley Kelley, the irrepressible Kelley drives the between-song banter. Kelley manages to be both rampantly uncouth and gentlemanly courteous in short periods of time – occasionally in the span of a single mind-bending sentence. Red Meat fans relish the complete unpredictability of what comes out of Kelley’s mouth between songs and appreciate that, while some musicians introduce songs the same way year after year, trying to guess what’s coming next based on whatever Smelley Kelley is saying is like trying to anticipant the movement of a roller coast three looping turns ahead. Even though he gives the impression of having zero limits on his language or topics, Kelley gages audiences’ sensibilities and tailors the range of his comments accordingly; while all-ages crowds will not suddenly hear about (for example) Smelley Kelley’s hot-weather use of cornstarch on certain delicate portions of his anatomy, but Kelley gives his comments much freer rein with club crowds. Olson (the only woman in the group) is completely unfazed by Kelley’s conversational excursions, and watching the interplay between Kelley and Olson is rich.
Since forming in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1993, Red Meat has gone from a bar band surprising — and winning over — urban rockers with their country twang to being hailed as California’s top honky-tonk band. Along the way Red Meat has released five albums (three produced by Grammy-winning roots-rock icon Dave Alvin), served as rockabilly legend and Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Wanda Jackson’s touring band, and received rave reviews from sources as varied as Entertainment Weekly, No Depression, Country Standard Time, and the Los Angeles Times. In honor of Red Meat’s twentieth anniversary, The City and County of San Francisco named April 26, 2013 “Red Meat Day” complete with a mayoral proclamation and Red Meat delivering a lunchtime set on the steps of City Hall.
In those 20 years, Red Meat has earned a reputation of consistently delivering high-energy shows packed with tremendous music, irreverent humor, and an infectious sense of camaraderie that spills over to the audience. Having three lead singers (Smelley Kelley, Jill Olson, Scott Young) and two lead instrumentalists (Michael Montalto on electric guitar and Scott Young on acoustic guitar, fiddle, or occasionally trombone) makes for dynamic shows with a different feel for each song. The four-part vocal harmonies by Kelley, Olson, Young, and Les James have a solid blend reminiscent of some of country’s storied sibling groups. Drummer James and bassist Olson keep the rhythm as straight ahead or funky, and as fast or as languid, as each song requires.
Tickets for Red Meat’s August 24 show at The Palms Playhouse (13 Main Street in Winters) are $15 and are available at Pacific Ace Hardware in Winters, Armadillo Music in Davis, Watermelon Music in Woodland, and at the door if the show is not sold out. For more information, visit palmsplayhouse.com and redmeat.net.