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Kinky Friedman @ Shank Hall

April 2, 2017

May. 4, 2017
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kinky friedman may 2 milwaukee
Photo credit: Hank Snyder

Were any of his audience to have been injured during Kinky Friedman’s solo acoustic performance at Shank Hall, they may have had grounds to sue the veteran country/folk singer for emotional whiplash.  

That’s as good a term as any for the going back and forth between paroxysms of uproarious laughter and silent sadness Friedman elicited from his listeners through the course of 14 songs and a reading from one of the several books he has authored. The moments of melancholy came both from some of his own numbers and remakes that have long been in his repertoire, such as his opening iteration of Woody Guthrie’s salute to generous 1930s bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd. Friedman played the Guthrie number not far artistically removed from its writer’s original version, but “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about the eventual drunken dissolution of the Native American soldier responsible for raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, was taken down from the jaunty, martial pace of its Peter La Farge and Johnny Cash versions to a slower pace wherein Friedman practically bled the melancholy out of its biographical lyric.

He broke into another of those remakes, the theme of 1950s-’60s TV Western “Have Gun—Will Travel,” as he mentioned the show’s mercenary gunman hero, Paladin, as one of the darkly clad gents who inspired the name of Friedman’s own Man In Black Tequila. The frequently festive nature of the night began before the venue doors even opened, when the headliner hung out on the sidewalk, smoking a cigar (also of his own brand) as he hung out and took pictures with a few patrons lined up to see the polymath whose low-level insinuation into popular culture belies his lack of radio hits. Only Friedman can boast recording the only episode of the esteemed PBS concert series “Austin City Limits” so apparently objectionable to never have been aired and appearances on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.” 

Friedman’s humor is often blue without resorting to gratuitous profanities. It can come from life experience, such as his pledge to “sign anything but bad legislation,” including an autograph applied to one Scottish admirer’s scrotum, though he swore off putting pen to genitalia this night. He also shared some yuks courtesy of good friend, political opposite and legendary country music singer/songwriter Willie Nelson, whose doctor jokes encompassed AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, murder, breast nuzzling and a lengthy vaginal examination—during a chiropractic treatment.

Friedman’s Jewish heritage inspired one of his most famous songs, and one beloved of Nelson Mandela, “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” perhaps the most surrealistic memorial to the horror of the Holocaust ever committed to vinyl. If that song from his first album in 1973 helped to cement his legacy, one of the new numbers he shared, “Me and My Guitar,” could be one to bless his back account substantially. “Laugh-In” actress Ruth Buzzi has played it for the enjoyment of Canadian pop/country and gospel star Anne Murray, and it’s easy to imagine the ode to a favorite instrument sung by one of commercial radio country’s good guys, like Brad Paisley or Jon Pardi.

Friedman closed the show without encore by reading from his Heroes of a Texas Childhood. The short biographical essay about his father was touching, and his advice about continuing to refer to loved ones in the present tense, astute. That he mentioned how his and Shank Hall owner Peter Jest’s dads were both Air Force navigators during WWII made for a sweet touch of appreciation for his Milwaukee host.

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