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Gram Parsons 70th Birthday Bash @ Linneman’s Riverwest Inn

Aug. 27, 2016

Aug. 29, 2016
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William James is sold on his vision. The former Milwaukeean has been promoting the induction of “cosmic American music” trailblazer Gram Parsons into the Country Music Hall of Fame for the better part of a decade. Working in conjunction with his online petition abetting that end has been an annual tribute concert tour commemorating the late Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers member and solo artist.

The novel catch to each tour date is that it’s comprised of acts local to each city. Parsons’ material comprises some of each band’s set, but not its entirety. The point is to not only eulogize the man, but to showcase his ongoing influence in others continuing to negotiate the connections between country and rock. To those ends, James’ Gram Parsons 70th Birthday Bash at Linneman’s Saturday night wasn’t only the remembrance of a singular figure in American pop music history, but a great sampler of rootsy local music.

With a bassist out for the night due to last-minute food poisoning and another member missing, Milwaukee outlaw country outfit Liar’s Trial commenced the six-hour mini-fest a touch tentatively. Still, numbers from their first two long-players, Cowboys From Hell and Songs About Momma, Trains, Trucks, Prison and Gettin’ Drunk, as well as forthcoming album with a hilariously George Strait-baiting title, Armadillo By Morning, showcase strongly narrative songwriting. A highlight was the duet between the band’s lead-singing guitarist and its new female singer on Parsons’ and protégé Emmylou Harris’ “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning.” 

The other entry on the bill to suffer from missing personnel, Illinois’ Mississippi Stranglers, provided the night’s starkest sound. Two of the usually quintet’s singer/guitarists assayed Parsons’ “Sin City” and five of their own compositions that mined a similarly mournful vein.

Perhaps best representation of Parsons’ cosmic American music ideal of incorporating country, rock and other genres into a fresh perspective may have come from the Zach Pietrini Band. The bandleader, with his Frank Zappa-meets-Jim Croce mustache and pigeonhole-defying approach that takes into consideration folk earnestness and pop hooks, couldn’t dwell too deeply on the birthday boy’s sad side. There wasn’t much time to be mournful when his preschool daughter was dominating Linneman’s dance floor, twirling about to her daddy’s tunes. Cleverly enough, he paired Parsons’ “I Can’t Dance” with "Dance," an original composition dedicated to his little cutie.

Among the bands on the bill to sport Western wear in the manner of Parsons at his most sartorially extravagant, Doghouse Flowers’ Justin Reuther looked especially resplendent in his shirt’s filigree with its sleeves rolled up to show his sleeve of tattoos. His ensemble’s offerings, steeped in twang to a degree commercial country radio hasn’t much witnessed in decades, are as commensurately assured as the display of all that ink. 

The Honchos’ Chris Head’s bushy gray hair gave him a resemblance to Parsons’ ex-Byrd partner in the Burritos, Chris Hillman. And the Honchos’ sonic path finding between power pop and country sounds like something Parsons could have easily endorsed. In his explanation of the inspiration behind The Byrds’ “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” Head sounded about as peeved as Parsons and Roger McGuinn were to have written their dismissal of Nashville radio jock Ralph Emery, whose disdain for a hippie approach to country manifested in an interview with them and commentary on the band’s Grand Ole Opry appearance.    

The bill saved the wildest for last. Penultimately, Alex Ballard’s geekily spastic showmanship defines Sugarfoot as much as the trio’s bustling rock ’n’ roll. Their set encountered a feminine idyll, however, when Chrissy Dzioba of The Whiskeybelles joined Ballard for the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts,” famously remade by Parsons and Harris. Ballard immediately resumed whooping it up once the heartbreaking duet finished.

Robin Graham of The Cow Ponies perpetrated her own kind of wildness, too. Dancing the twist and the swim in her abstract expressionist go-go dancer dress while she and other members of the quintet tackled three Parsons numbers in a row, it’s funny to think she’s only been singing in rock contexts for four years after a life following jazz, classical and marching band muses.

She and everyone else from throughout the night who stuck around ended the show with the Parsons song that got him closest to gospel, “In My Hour of Darkness.” The semi-choral approach, microphone passed around to those who knew each verse, served as another reminder of the artist who died so young and as a blessing to the audience after a fulfilling night keeping his music alive.

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