Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bill Kirchen: Putting the "Bam" in "Bambino" (2007)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

Bill Kirchen
Chelsea’s Cafe
2857 Perkins Road
Baton Rouge
Saturday, March 10, 2007

Blue Moon Saloon
Sunday, March 11, 2007

People called Babe Ruth the “Sultan of Swat” and the “Colossus of Clout” because he cranked out home runs.

People call Bill Kirchen the “King of Dieselbilly” and the “Titan of the Telecaster” because he has been cranking out home-run-sized guitar riffs for nearly forty years.

Kirchen earned his monikers during his long-running membership in Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. He maintains his monikers today with his own bands and by moonlighting with musicians who--only because life is unfair--are more famous than he is.

You can’t see Ruth anymore, but you can see Kirchen--twice, in fact: this Saturday at Chelsea’s Café in Baton Rouge and this Sunday at the Blue Moon Saloon. Here are six reasons that you should ...

1. Kirchen will be performing material from his new album, The Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods (Proper), an album blessed with the playing and background singing of Kirchen’s longtime pal, the great Nick Lowe. What, one wonders, brought the King of Dieselbilly and the “Jesus of Cool” together? “About twenty-five years ago, I had a band called the Moonlighters,” says Kirchen, “and we made a record with Nick producing. That’s really how I got to know him. After that I played on [Lowe’s] Party of One and The Impossible Bird, and then he took that band--Impossible Birds--on the road. And, with the addition of [keyboardist] Austin DeLone, the Impossible Birds are who’s on my record."

2. Among the songs from his new album that Kirchen might perform are Shorty Long’s “Devil with a Blue Dress” and Arthur Alexander’s “If It’s Really Got to Be This Way,” the latest additions to the Kirchen Canon of Killer Covers. “I actually covered [Bob Dylan’s] ‘When the Ship Comes In’ for this record,” he says, “but it ended on the cutting-room floor. I don’t know why I think I have any business covering Dylan songs. I guess they’re so good that they stand up under rough treatment. But some songs, when they’re done, they’re done, you know? You don’t even want to touch them. I mean, I’m a big Dan Penn fan, but I’m not going to cover ‘Do Right Woman.’ And I’m probably not going to record any Elvis Presley songs. The world doesn’t need me singing ‘I Got Stung.’”

3. Elvis Costello thinks so highly of Kirchen and his band that he enlisted them for his 2006 appearance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. “He asked for our advice as to what songs to play,” says Kirchen, “so I picked a bunch of country stuff I wanted to hear him do. He also named the band Elvis Costello and the Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods and let me sing the album’s title song onstage.”

4. Kirchen plays a really cool vintage Telecaster. “Yeah,” he says, “it’s an oldie. It was on the cover of Vintage Guitar this year. They say it’s from ’54, but I got it in the late ’60s, and I put all the wear on it. It was virtually pristine when I got it--much as I was!”

5. Kirchen attended high school in Michigan with Iggy Pop. “I didn’t really hang with him,” Kirchen recalls, “but I was in a band with him: the Ann Arbor High School Concert Band. He played drums and I played trombone.” (It’s too bad that Kirchen became a Lost Planet Airman instead of a Stooge--a trombone might’ve made “We Will Fall” almost bearable.)

6. Kirchen climaxes his shows with an eight-minute version of “Hot Rod Lincoln” (his biggest Commander Cody hit) that’s really just an excuse for him to detour into a high-impact medley of classic electric-guitar hooks beginning with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” ending with Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” and including along the way riffs from Duane Eddy, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Bob Wills, Flatt and Scruggs, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Link Wray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddy King, B.B. King, Albert King, Ben E. King, Elvis Presley (“the King!”), Deep Purple, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols, to name just twenty-six.

And although he’s been playing the medley for years, Kirchen has never been pulled over for exceeding the copyright limit.

“Maybe the sections are legally short-enough that it’s O.K.,” muses Kirchen. “I really just timed it to try to get the hook in. And sometimes the number of times I play each hook just has to do with ‘How long do we have?’ ‘Are people intoxicated enough that they need to hear the riff from ’Satisfaction’ three times to recognize it?’”

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