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Psychobilly Without a Cause, the Reverend Horton Heat Revs up St. Louis

Originally published on KDHX.org

Jim Heath is an ordained minister of rockabilly. The native Texan took the classic rockabilly sound of the 1950s and blended it with high-octane punk and roots rock, producing a sound that could only be described as psychobilly.

When he picks up his signature Gretsch and takes the stage with bandmates Jimbo Wallace and Scott Churilla, he becomes the Reverend Horton Heat.RHH has been rocking the indie charts and breaking hearts for 30 years. Having finally secured a place more deserving of their punk-rock natures on Victory Records, the 11th studio album “Rev” is rigged to do just that — if your feet don’t start tapping like pistons in a 350 block engine, you’re not listening to it loud enough.

Though opening band Ha Ha Tonka hasn’t been together nearly as long as Heath and company, they played solidly. While many musicians can’t compete with the ferocity or technical fluidity of Jim Heath, HHT made opening seem like standard fare. Singer Brian Roberts beamed and happily strummed away at the band’s biggest hit to date, “Usual Suspects.”

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Their sound is a romantic, southern Missouri love note, at times calling to mind a Midwestern version of Delta Spirit. Electric mandolin and four-part vocal harmonies aside, this is essentially indie pop with a slight, alt-Americana inclination. It’s an odd pairing of these two groups on the same bill. HHT’s proclivities lie in crafting the perfect pop song on their own terms, rife with privileged hooks and and sing-along “yeahs!” RRH is “West Side Story,” directed by Hunter S. Thompson and filled with zombies and marijuana. But the crowd was true to these local boys done good, and the band was cordial and fun.

“Caney Mountain,” though an older song from the band’s first album, was the most exciting of the entire set. A nice blend of funk and country, the stomp it elicited from the crowd made the floor shake. HHT ended its set with an uninspired cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Not an ideal way to end a show, with a cover of someone else’s major hit, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind. That said, they craft some very catchy fare — here’s hoping their next endeavor finds their sound in a little more elevated territory.

Reverend Horton Heat took a little bit of time to get to the stage, but when the band did, it was a free-for-all frenzy for space in a tightly-packed crowd. The guys have been playing as Reverend Horton Heat since the late ’80s — they’ve put a lot of mileage on stage, but the longer they run, the more dependable they get. They took their places and immediately launched into “Smell of Gasoline,” the first track from the new album. After some initial microphone problems, they played a Heat classic. “I tell you what it is,” the Rev. confessed. “It’s a god dang St. Louis, Missouri psychobilly freakout!” With all the charm of a snake oil salesman, he smiled piously down at his loyal followers, who thrashed around harder and faster with each song. Wallace put his upright bass on its side and laid down to keep playing, while Heath perched on it and gazed over the crowd. These guys know how to have fun.

While the majority of the songs may stick to a standard, I IV V chord progression, that doesn’t mean they have to like it. Heath knows how to put enough torque on his music to make your head spin. The guitar work during “It’s Martini Time” was dizzying. The jazz chords and dominant 7ths fly as fast as his fingers can carry them. The sound is textured entirely by Heath’s acrobatic guitar work and his raspy register, while Wallace slaps his flame-decorated upright bass and handles crowd control. Heath doesn’t shy away from influences, but he also knows how to leave them scrambling in the dust, evident in their rousing tribute to Chuck Berry with a cover of “Johnny B. Goode.”

It was clear the crowd was not going to let the show end without an encore and they got their way. The trio returned to play another slow song “Where in the Hell Did You Go?”

They closed the high-energy set with an older radio hit, “Galaxie 500.” Heath set down the Gretsch, grabbed a beer and let drummer Scott Chirula take a breakneck, eight-minute drum solo that was nothing but fills, drumstick twirls and double-kick. Bassist Jimbo took a more brief but deserved turn, with tons of double-slapping on the upright.

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They were so gracious at the end of the show, Heath immediately started to glad-hand people from the stage. A fan leapt forward to rip the duct-taped setlist from the stage at the bass player’s feet. Jimbo pulled out a sharpie, offering to sign it for the young man. Heath tossed his pick in the air, which happened to land right at my feet. Miracles do happen.

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