Bill Kirchen: Five Lost Planet Airmen fly again this weekend
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen gained national recognition for their eclectic blend of country, rock, western swing, blues and boogie-woogie. That omnivorous approach has earned them credit as pioneers of the Americana genre.
Five original Airmen—guitarist and singer Bill Kirchen, pedal steel player Bobby Black, guitarist and singer John Tichy, bassist and singer Buffalo Bruce Barlow and violinist and sax player Andy Stein—will hold a rare Airmen reunion this weekend for a run of shows at select Northern California venues. Keyboardist and singer Austin de Lone and drummer Paul Revelli will join.
Kirchen can make his electric guitar growl, groove, or glimmer with delicate bell-like runs. His playing, including the defining licks on their biggest hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” was integral to CC&HLPA’s sound. As a solo artist, he’s received a Grammy nomination and released a dozen albums, including 2016’s “Transatlanticana” with de Lone.
“Bill Kirchen is one smart critter,” said songwriter, musician and frequent collaborator Kevin “Blackie” Farrell, “with a relentless, serious, kick-ass work ethic that I wish I had. He was a music student in school, and has way more grownup chops than I’ll ever have.”
Kirchen said the Airmen reunion show “grew organically.”
“I decided years ago that anytime I was in the Bay Area, I would play with Bobby if I could. Then last year to my delight the other local Airman, Buffalo Bruce, suddenly became available.
“When Professor Tichy got wind back in New York, he said cut me in if you ever do it again. So at this point as it’s turning into an actual reunion, so I called the last available surviving band member, Andy Stein, also in New York. Against all odds he managed to shoehorn it into his schedule. Voila!”
Black made a name for himself in country well before joining the Airmen in the 1970s. He played on George Jones’ earliest recordings, and has been a member of Asleep at the Wheel and New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Calling Black an “incredible musician,” Kirchen said, “I’ve never heard another steel player who contributes so much to every song—not just solos, not just fills, but all the little subtleties. A rhythm part here, a beautiful chord-comping part there, he’s always helping.”
He continued, “John was my original role model for rock ‘n’ roll guitar and singing, plus classic country weepers. I was already picking country to some extent, but new to that world. He had and has it all: the drive, chops and attitude.
“Buffalo Bruce, same goes. Drive, chops, always with cool inventive lines. He’s a never-ending source of great energy on stage, a big driving force in the original band, plus great harmonies.
“Now Andy Stein: he is the most accomplished musician I have ever worked with.”
Considering whom Kirchen’s played with—including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Link Wray—that’s quite a compliment.
“He plays and writes classical symphonies and violin concertos, plays fiddle, jazz sax and violin. Plus, he rocks.”
Stein used that versatility as the violinist and saxophonist with Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band of Prairie Home Companion fame.
Austin de Lone and Paul Revelli will complete the line-up.
“Austin has made several albums and played hundreds of gigs with me, including a stint with Commander Cody,” said Kirchen. “Paul has played maybe a dozen times with me. He’s also a consummate pro who can nail anything you throw at him.
“Although these seven people have never played together as a unit, we are all still working musicians who have all logged hours with each other, and with a little brushing up can slide right into this. Paul has the most homework to do, but he is that guy. You’ll never know by listening that he didn’t log in his seven years as an Airman.”
Kirchen said the shows will feature all Airmen songs, adding, “We have more than enough killer material from the seven classic CC & LPA albums.”
Airmen songs of note include “Lost in the Ozone, ” “Too Much Fun,” “Down to Seeds and Stems Again Blues” and “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which Kirchen has since turned into a virtuosic guitar-driven tour of 20th century popular music.
For more information, visit billkirchen.com, bobbyblacksteel.com, andysteinmusic.com, mane.rpi.edu/people/faculty/john-tichy and the venues’ websites.
Airmen reunion shows:
Thursday, June 27: Michael’s on Main, Soquel, Calif.
Friday, June 28: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, Calif.
Saturday, June 29: The Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, Calif.
Sunday, June 30: HopMonk Tavern, Novato, Calif.