There’s a minimalist feel to The Duchess tonight and it’s nothing to do with the size of the crowd, but with the stage layout. Instead of the usual array of electric guitars, drums and amplifiers, there are just a few acoustic acoustic instruments lying in their respective cases and one microphone in the centre of the stage. Oh, and an empty fridge…
Soon, Nicole Maguire, dark-haired, dark-eyed and petite takes her place in front of the microphone and, with acoustic guitar, starts her set with (I think) Run With Me, from her debut album What You Really Mean. It’s a simple tune, played in a finger-picking style and delivered in a strong, clear voice which is perhaps just slightly over-amplified tonight. Nicole has been the support for the UK leg of Hayseed Dixie’s latest tour, an experience she describes as “interesting” before asking us to pray for her for the remaining couple of dates. “We have respected you totally,” comes a shout from the back of the stage. “I’m the calm before the storm,” she quips before starting her next song. I can’t remember whether I was noting down song-titles or lyrics, but I’ve got That The Long Way Round for this one and Time Won’t Slow Us Down for the next, neither of which, if they are titles, are from the album. The next one is, though, and it’s the title track and a lovely one at that. “Consider this the quietest song you’re going to hear all night,” she intones before Hard Love and I could listen to her speak with that Irish lilt all night long. This song must be the one people are listening to when comparing Nicole to Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. The final song of the set, which I definitely didn’t catch the title of, sees John Wheeler join Nicole on stage, playing violin alongside her and, for the next three minutes, they are known as “Hayseed Trixie”. The additional instrument gives the song a bit more musical body and seems to give her vocals a bit extra to sit in front of, making them sound slightly less loud than the rest of the set. (I wasn’t tempted to buy the album on the night but, having heard samples from it since, Nicole’s voice is a lot quieter and softer on it and there’s more of a band than a solo artist feel to it.) As the song ends, there’s much hugging between the two and Nicole leaves the stage, thanking that audience and flashing her beguiling smile.
During the break, after microphone stands have been placed along the front of the stage, it becomes apparent, as if it hadn’t been before, what the fridge is for as the members of Hayseed Dixie start filling it with various drinks. Wheeler himself walks on with a bottle of Black Sheep in each hand, bending down to place them under his microphone and accidentally emptying the contents of the open one under his arm onto the stage… and the electrics. Quickly unplugging a cable and throwing it towards the back of the stage, he towels things dry before plugging back in. It’ll be fine, I’m sure. He looks like he knows what he’s doing. Maybe it’s happened before.
Eventually, with fridge (or beer holder on microphone stand) filled, the band take to the stage and launch into a blistering instrumental opener during which “Reverend” Reno’s fingers and banjo get’s a thorough warm-up. The Dixie’s main attraction is their Bluegrass covers of heavy metal songs, originally primarily those of AC/DC (hence their name) and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap is the first tonight. Equally inventive, though, are their own songs, usually of a humorous nature, and Kirby Hill sees “Deacon” Reno’s fingers flying across the most beat-up mandolin you are ever likely to see. There’s a break between this and the next song, perhaps to allow breaths to be taken, and John Wheeler chooses to natter away in what sounds to be German before handing his guitar to the Deacon and taking up violin for All Night Long, bow arcing round in circles in-between playing. A fast and furious version of The Cars’ My Best Friend’s Girl and there’s no let up in the frantic pace as it leads into Detroit Rock City, originally by Kiss but, like many of these covers, almost unrecognisable from the original. Next up came something that I’m not even going to pretend that I knew, although I’m guessing it was from the band’s 2011 album Sjt Munchs Drikkeklubb Band, which was almost entirely in Norwegian. After another of the band’s originals, Tolerance, there was just time for a quick stare into the audience from John Wheeler before Ace Of Spades. Wheeler peppers the spaces between songs with various calls for the audience to drink along with the band and seemingly random pieces of chat, the first of which tonight was a discourse on “modern art”, which was followed by a modern art – i.e. freestyle, with a quick snatch of Freebird thrown in to put the Deacon off – opening to Hells Bells. Imagine, if you can, the album version played at single speed,but without the high-pitched vocals. There’s more chat, this time a story about Wheeler being propositioned by a woman in a hotel bar in Norway (“I take it you enjoyed the show…?” “What show?”) before the band play the best killing song in the world, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the best drinking song in the world, Eine Kleine Trinkmusik, as they spread their repertoire into the world of Bluegrass covers of classical works. A version of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, with the slowest opening ever is followed by Alice Cooper’s Poison after which Wheeler start’s a tirade against the promoter of tonight’s gig. Apparently the sound isn’t what the band wants because, despite letting the promoter know well in advance that they need an analogue, rather than digital, mixing desk, he has failed to provide one because they hadn’t had enough pre-sales, which is more than a little strange given the crowd that the band have pulled in on both occasions that I have seen them. Anyway, because he has been “so cheap”, Wheeler decides to announce the promoter’s email address to the audience, more than once, encouraging us all to berate him, I hate to think what his in-box looked like the next morning, but the band seemed particularly annoyed by the whole thing.
Hayseed Dixie frontman – John Wheeler
Alien Abduction Probe, perhaps the band’s funniest song (Unanswered questions tortured me\Like how they unlocked the door\Why’s my rectum sore?\Why do I twitch when I watch E.T.?), and Corn Liquor, inspired by Wheeler’s grandfather, who made the best corn whisky in the world, see the band continue with their energy-sapping set. At various times, each member steps forward, away from their microphone, between the monitors to the very front of stage, allowing the audience to see their fingers flying across the strings, fixing them with stares and mugging for the various cameras and phones pointed at them. Thankfully, bass player Jake “Bakesnake” Byers doesn’t move too far away from his drink – I’m standing right in front of him and, to be frank, he scares me more than a little. Not that I’d try messing with Wheeler either, even if I were sober. Quite clearly, the audience member who decides to start heckling him during his latest discourse – this time into the way different nations swear – is a long way off sober. Apparently he wants the band to play music, rather than speak and when Wheeler’s initial suggestion that he stays at home and listens to records, doesn’t shut him up, he decides on a more direct approach and suggests that they, errrm, meet outside after the show. Eventually the drunken fool gives up and the band play their own She Was Skinny When I Met Her, which leads into the similarly themed Fat Bottomed Girls. They would probably have started it sooner if he hadn’t heckled – c’est la vie…
Jake “Bakesnake” Byers, “Reverend” Don Wayne Reno and “Deacon” Dale Reno
There are more originals with the shotgun wedding song Moonshiner’s Daughter followed by the brilliantly titled I’m Keeping Your Poop. As if by design, it takes until halfway through Highway To Hell, the final song of the set, for a string to break and running repairs are made to Wheeler’s guitar off-stage while the audience clamour for more. Returning to the stage, and still re-tuning, Wheeler brags that that band have played nearly a thousand shows over their fourteen year history, pointing out that rarely has an artist who has their big hits played on Radio One had a career that long. Nor, it should be added, quite as energetic as these guys. Returning to the promoter-and-mixing-desk theme, the band play their own Rider Song, which should adequately explain to anybody exactly what it is that they need to on a show – there’s no big rock star demands here, just a case of ale, a case of lager, ice to keep it cold and some specifics regarding equipment. There are many bad cover versions of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb out there but few anywhere near as good as this band’s version, with its instrumental madness between vocal sections, which sits in the middle of Wheeler and the Reverend’s take on Duelling Banjos, and ends the show on an incredible high. It may be the speed that they play their songs (I have seen one report that there may be a plan for them to play their ten-track AC/DC tribute album through in thirty minutes) but few bands manage to fit in over twenty songs, as well as entertaining (whatever the heckler thought) chat into their sets, and to keep up the level of energy seen tonight. Highly recommended for fans of lively music with an exciting, funny twist.