It had already been quite a show by the time The Reverend Horton Heat launched its “Psychobilly Freakout” on the writhing crowd at Northern Lights Sunday night.
By the time the rockabilly punkers took the stage, the crowd had previously been treated to a fine set by alternative/roots/country rockers Cracker, triumphantly returning less than a year after its headlining slot at Revolution Hall. But as great as David Lowery and his boys were at kicking out the jams, The Reverend (AKA Jim Heath) and his band of the same name were the main attractions of the evening. Their generous set stretched for nearly two hours, ending the show in the wee hours of Monday morning.
The trio of guitarist/vocalist Heath, standup bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla (the 11-year Horton Heat veteran filled in for current drummer Paul Simmons, a real treat for longtime fans) wasted no time or words on this crowd, plowing through 10 classics, including “Big Blue Car” and the raucous “I’m Mad” in quick-draw fashion. It wasn’t until after “Psychobilly Freakout” (the song) that the band paused for a breather, with Heath asking the crowd to bear with the band as it played some songs from 2009’s “Laughin’ & Cryin’ with Reverend Horton Heat.”
He needn’t have bothered — the new songs were just as well-received as the old, and pushed up the country ratio in the band’s eclectic mix. “Ain’t No Saguaro in Texas,” “Drinkin’ and Smokin’ Cigarettes” and especially “Rural Point of View” were all worthy of rowdy dancing (although the crowd, with some notable exceptions, was fairly tepid).
Standouts in the “classics” portion of the set included the spacey surf rock of “The Girl in Blue,” followed by the dirgey “It’s a Dark Day,” perhaps the most introspective this gang of rockabilly punkers gets. Things built to a thrilling conclusion (and cheers got progressively louder) as the band continued slamming through favorites such as “Baddest of the Bad,” “Five-O-Ford” and “400 Bucks,” finally letting it all rip with “The Devil’s Chasin’ Me.” “Big Red Rocket of Love,” the band’s encore, was almost superfluous after the rush of the final five songs.
At first brush, Cracker seemed an odd opener for Horton Heat, and indeed some members of this crowd seemed a bit stand-offish during the group’s heavily roots-oriented set. But for the most part, leader Lowery, drummer Frank Funaro, bassist Sal Maida and especially lead guitarist Johnny Hickman won the crowd with an hour set that managed to feel loose and spontaneous.
Highlights included the tongue-in-cheek “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”; the wistful newbie “Friends,” off 2009’s “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey”; and the raunchy “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself.” “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” from Lowery’s first band Camper Van Beethoven, and Cracker’s major hit (and still best song) “Low,” ended the set with a bang, priming the crowd for Horton Heat’s onslaught.
With such a huge show, Los Angeles-based openers Miss Derringer seemed a bit superfluous. Although fun in a live setting, the group’s ’60s throwback sound was nothing to write home about, and vocalist Elizabeth McGrath, clearly meant to be the band’s focal point, was actually its weakest link (as an unfortunately screechy version of The Misfits “Die, Die My Darling” that closed out the set proved). But songs such as “Click Click (Bang Bang)” and “Bulletproof Heart” were satisfying enough, and the group’s energy and spirit carry them where its music and performance lack.