NEW BRAUNFELS. Certain moments can turn a good concert into a great one and Ryan Bingham‘s sold out show Friday night had a doozy. Near the end of the two-hour set, the former bullrider and his four-piece band of musical ranchhands pulled out “Southside of Heaven” from his 2007 debut “Mescalito” and the sunburned and overserved crowd of 5,600 went absolutely Spring Breakish. It’s a song that rides out of the gate on a Woody Guthrie groove, then bucks like Bodacious at the turn.
As he finished the slower part of the song, the crowd’s anticipation was delirious. Like a drunk Kei$ha wannabe stumbling to the top of the bar, they cheered for what was going to happen. But instead of charging into that locomotive finish, Bingham stepped back. The crowd roared, louder than any other, I’m certain, in the venue’s seven year history. And Bingham just smiled. This went on for what seemed to be half an hour, though it was probably just a minute.
Then suddenly, without warning, it kicked into overdrive and the entire front section of the audience started pogoing like he was Ryan Rotten. Beautiful! Even the slicing, searing “Bread and Water,” with it’s “big ole coonass smile” couldn’t top that.
To get to that perfect moment, Bingham led off with “Beg for Broken Legs” from latest LP “Tomorrowland,” sprinkled in songs from earlier albums, such as “Depression” from “Junky Star” (2010) and “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So” from “Roadhouse Sun” (2009). But “Mescalito” is his “Living With Ghosts,” the debut he’ll probably never be able to top. Every song he did from the album, even the weakish “Boracho Station” (a vanity excercise in flamenco guitar), hit best with the crowd.
The band was solid, nothing more, except for violinist Richard Bowden of Lubbock, who provided not only otherworldly roots sawing, but air-filling B3 organ riffs with his shredded bow. You can’t beat the Dead Horses, Bingham’s great early band, but Bowden was scintillating all night. Another gift from the Flatlanders, whose Joe Ely was quite instrumental in Bingham’s evolution from campfire Waits to recording artist.
The music played between the opening set by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, responsible for at least 30% of the tickets sold, and the headliner, said a lot about where Bingham’s musical heart is right now: Rod Stewart and Faces, R.L. Burnside, Howlin’ Wolf. Turned up LOUD. That he’s a rocker, not a folkie, was underlined by an acoustic three-song throwaway set where he got Oscar-winning “The Weary Kind” out of the way and had the easy crowd singing “Hallelujah.”
But Bingham should lead a more adventurous (a Bowden at every instrument) band to fully, completely get to his personal “Highway 61.” He wants to be a Springsteen, but he’s touring with the “Human Touch” band. (His guitarist was Shane Fontaine with a prison weightlifting body.) Even the Dead Horses plodded at times, due to Bingham’s heavy-handed riffs, but the new band just couldn’t get to that notch above. All-out rocker “Heart of Rhythm” was a disaster, running after the recorded pace like parents at a picnic trying to keep up with a sugar-hyped three-year-old.
Bingham’s at a career crossroads, with the textured “Tomorrowland” material not engaging audiences like his earlier stuff, so he’s turned his focus to “light this motherfucker up!” night after night to great results. He’s getting to be the Widespread Panic for kids not quite ready for real life.
Turnpike Troubadours gave Bingham a tough act to follow, with Evan Felker’s catchy songs inspiring singalongs throughout the hourlong set. One man in the crowd proposed during “Every Girl” and two others exchanged punches in the same spot five or six similarly-tempoed songs later. There was action in the crowd, in other words, as this was more of a double bill than a clearcut opener/ headliner.
TpT have made three really good records, with the latest “Goodbye Normal Street” charting nationally on tiny Bossier City Records. But they’ve got a ways to go before they’re more than a jukebox chugging whiskey in concert. Felker’s wonderfully reedy voice conjures up John Denver, Jim Croce and a similar future solo move by the lead Troubadour. He seems wound a little tight or maybe that’s because half his songs reminded me of “wrapped around your pretty little finger tonight,” you know, the Bruce Robison song.
Who knows where the future will lead for each of these wildly popular acts? But on Friday night on the banks of the Guadalupe River, Austin was on the northside of heaven, that’s for sure.