It was hot in The Cave Saturday night; with dozens of people packed into the front room to see both John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff and Magnolia Collective play, the room felt like a rainforest, albeit altered by the smell of beer and mixed drinks. In short, it was the perfect spot to see a country band on a Saturday night. There was even a little dancing.
Magnolia Collective's story-oriented Americana-rock inspired a good bit of appreciative bounce in the front of the room. After a quick changeover, Howie and his band kicked off their Everything Except Goodbye LP release set, appropriately starting with album opener "The Man I Used to be." The song—and much of the set—rode infectious country grooves. The band leaned into rock but always kept at least one worn leather boot in honky-tonk territory.
(Video by Dan Schram)
Last week, Howie spoke with the INDY about his own honky-tonk roots, leading back long before the formation of his celebrated previous act Two Dollar Pistols to his late dad's penchant for outlaw country. Much of his life, it seems, has been steeped in this tragic, lonesome music, and he's right at home crooning about heartbreak in a crowded, sweaty bar. Headlong rollick and upbeat western swing defined much of the set, with Howie's big-bodied Gibson jumbo laying a chunky, acoustic foundation for guitarist Tim Shearer's Telecaster runs. Pedal steel player Nathan Golub loomed intently over his instrument, while animated bassist Billie Feather peered playfully around both sides of her upright and cracked jokes. Southern Culture on the Skids drummer Dave Hartman lent a hybrid rockabilly/honky-tonk backbone in lieu of Rosewood Bluff drummer Matt Brown, who died in 2012.
Close to the end of the hour-ish set (there was also a two-song encore that included a scorching rendition of "Last Great Guitar Slinger," from Rosewood Bluff's debut LP), Howie insisted the animated crowd calm down for a second; it took a few tries, but he eventually got their attention and asked, quite seriously, for a round of applause for Brown. And then the band played "Blue," a tribute to their lost member; Howie closed his eyes and spun poignant, dreamlike metaphors of being stuck at shore while his friend was washed out to sea before breaking into a cracked falsetto for the chorus of "I'm blue." The guitarist and bassist closed their eyes and nodded during the tribute.
Despite the heartbroken nature of so many of these songs, the night felt like a celebration. Following "Blue," in fact, the set proper closed on Johnny Cash's fantastically absurd "One Piece at a Time," featuring an extended acid-country, psychedelic break. And Howie kept the jokes coming; the best, probably, was a masterful visual pun in which Howie introduced "Billie Feather on the bass," as she actually stood on her upright.
Honky-tonk may be depressing stuff, lyrically, but Howie and his band all looked really happy after the show, as did the remaining crowd. It may be that treating these these lovelorn, lonesome songs as a shared experience takes away some of the sting. If misery loves company, nobody seemed miserable at The Cave on Saturday.