“We get up on our hind legs and rock!”: Guitar-slinger Bill Kirchen and his all-star reunion band
A few days after playing San Francisco’s blockbuster Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and being a headliner at a star-studded benefit concert, Bill Kirchen is ready to bring a special reunion line-up of his band Too Much Fun to a series of Northern California shows. Kirchen, dubbed “The Titan of the Telecaster” by Guitar Player magazine, will be joined by Bobby Black (steel guitar), Austin de Lone (piano, vocals), David Carroll (bass, vocals), Paul Revelli (drums) and special guest Kevin “Blackie” Farrell (vocals, guitar).
“The festival gigs are great, but they tend to be over and gone in a blur,” said Kirchen on Monday. “At clubs we can take a little more time, do some deep catalogue material, take a few more chances, maybe tell a few backstories to the songs.”
Given that his associations with members of this weekend’s line-up go back more than 40 years, it isn’t just the songs that have deep backstory.
In 1967, Bill Kirchen co-founded Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, a band whose combination of rock, country, western swing, rockabilly, blues and boogie-woogie helped pioneer Americana music. Kirchen’s big guitar lines were an integral part of CC&HLPA, including powering their hit “Hot Rod Lincoln” up the charts. Steel guitarist Bobby Black joined after the first album in the early 70s.
“Bobby Black is one of the most, if not the most, incredible musicians I have ever worked with,” said Kirchen.
Considering who Kirchen’s played with — including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Norton Buffalo, Gene Vincent and Link Wray — that’s quite a compliment.
“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,” Kirchen said. “A rhythm part here, a beautiful chord comping part there, he’s always helping. I always loved his playing, but can appreciate it even more now. As a rookie out there in the early 70s, I maybe didn’t fully realize how lucky I was to be standing next to Bobby. The difference now? I pay attention! I’m lucky to get a second shot at things that went by too fast in another time.
“Bobby has an incredible track record,” Kirchen continued. “For instance, he met George Jones when Jones was an unknown amateur who would come and sit in with Bobby’s band in San Jose. Then around 1950, Bobby played on Jones’ very first recordings. That’s just one credit; there are many, many more.
“Bobby went on to join us, Commander Cody, in 1972, and become one of the small handful of players who brought the steel guitar to a broader non-country audience. I can’t tell you the number of steel guitarists who count Bobby as a primary inspiration and influence. I talked to three at Hardly Strictly alone: Marty Muse with Robert Earl Keen, Steve Fishell with Emmylou Harris, and Bob Egan with Blue Rodeo.”
Kirchen is no slouch himself. His band work, 10 critically acclaimed solo albums and countless concerts demonstrate his jaw-droppingly impressive guitar talents. His playing ranges from full-throated to soaring, with growling bass lines juxtaposed with delicate bell-like runs, all played with apparent ease. Kirchen’s guitar seems like an extension of him, more like a second voice than a separate instrument.
Kevin “Blackie” Farrell, who will play with Kirchen this weekend, has performed and recorded with Asleep at the Wheel and CC&HLPA and penned Americana classics such as “Sonora’s Death Row” and “Rockabilly Funeral.”
“Blackie is simply one of my very favorite writers, besides being an old and dear friend,” said Kirchen. “I try to do at least one song of his per album, dating back to ‘Mamma Hated Diesels’ in 1972. Blackie has an angle on things, it shows in his writing, and it shows in his singing and performing. He packs a wicked combination punch, soulful insight with a deadly sense of humor.”
Kirchen packs a combination punch himself, first making his mark as an instrumentalist then also as a vocalist, tunesmith and bandleader. He hits the right tone on songs as varied as country weepers (“Down to Seeds and Stems Again”), rockers (“Man In The Bottom of The Well”) and contagiously joyful romps (“Too Much Fun”). Writing songs in a range of moods from fun (“I Don’t Work That Cheap,” with Farrell) to reflective (“Rocks Into Sand”) and a jaunty combination of the two (“Bump Wood”), Kirchen is no one-trick pony.
Kirchen recalled that when he first saw pianist and singer Austin de Lone, who will join for the Bay Area dates, at the original Freight and Salvage in Berkeley in the late 60s, left a vivid memory. “Audie was on stage with a bunch of other miscreants, doing James Browns’ ‘Camel Walk.’ And I mean doing it, not just singing it. They had acoustic guitars and stuff, and it made a big impression on me.
“I got to know Audie later when I would go to see or do gigs with his band Eggs Over Easy,” said Kirchen. “That band absolutely started the Pub Rock scene in London when they went over in 1970 and hooked up with Chas Chandler, who was Jimi Hendrix’s manager and The Animals’ bass player. Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, who were the next link in the chain, both say Eggs Over Easy and Pub Rock laid the groundwork for the Punks and New Wave, and what’s grown out of those.
Kirchen added, “Audie is my favorite piano and keyboard player on the planet, and on my very short list of favorite singers. He produced one of my albums, and played on all of my solo albums. He has been my main collaborator and partner in crime for well over 30 years.”
Drummer Paul Revelli and bassist David Carroll complete the line-up. Kirchen and Revelli “have done a bunch of gigs together,” including with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Sammy Hagar. Carroll’s playing credits include Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, and Jerry Jeff Walker and, says Kirchen, “he sings like Don Rich!”
Earlier this week, Farrell commented that Kirchen’s “strong work ethic and being a tenacious student” is key to his success.
“The Telecaster is capable of magical things in the right hands,” said Farrell, “and Bill Kirchen has those hands. He can’t let a tasty lick or riff pass his ears without learning it and tossing it in the toolbox. His influences are incredibly broad and he blends all of it into what has become his own style of playing.
Farrell noted that “it’s no easy task to drive a three-piece band [Kirchen’s usual configuration] with authority, and Bill is a master at it. When there are more bodies on stage, he knows he has to throttle back and share the helm. Bill is a demanding bandleader but respectful of his bandmates. Hell, he even puts up with a funky old guitar strangler like me. I cherish our friendship and jump on every chance to share a stage with him.”
Thinking back to last weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and this coming weekend’s shows, Kirchen noted that playing at clubs and large festivals is so different that it’s “apples and oranges.”
“But,” he said, “the bottom line for both is that we get up on our hind legs and rock!”
For more information about Bill Kirchen’s upcoming shows, visit billkirchen.com and the venues’ websites.
Bill Kirchen’s October tour dates (reunion shows are Oct. 10-12):
Oct. 10: The Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, CA
Oct. 11: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, CA
Oct. 12: 19 Broadway Nite Club, Fairfax, CA
Oct. 29: Smilth’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA
Oct. 30: Jack Rabbits Live, Jacksonville, FL