What makes a country musician an outlaw?
Is it spending tattooed twenties in an Ohio State Penitentiary like David Allan Coe? Is it splitting time between robberies and club performances like Merle Haggard, or is it cutting a live record inside a California prison, a la Johnny Cash?
Sure, these are all the traits of the country outlaw. But consider this: What’s more outlaw than the grandson of Hank Williams serving up a four-hour schizophrenic show of country, rockabilly, rebelcore, and hell-spun metal—all while comparatively cookie-cutter twangers play it safe at a “Taste of Country” concert down the street?
Welcome to Friday night with Hank Williams III (or Hank3), who treated a rowdy, packed-to-the-rafters crowd to his brand of scofflaw sessions and shifts during a five-set marathon show at Town Ballroom.
With his legendary lineage, Williams doesn’t need to do much to claim rebel status. His grandfather lived fast and died young at 29; his father emerged from a 442-foot fall down a mountain to churn out tunes like “Whiskey Bent And Hell Bound.” But back around the time of his third studio album “Straight to Hell” in 2006, Hank Williams III threw down the gauntlet for renegades headlining barrooms and ballparks.
“Everybody calls themselves outlaws and all that stuff, but that’s what’s missing in country music,” he said at the time. “Everything’s so clean and pretty and perfect, and you need a couple people in there that aren’t perfect and that don’t sound the best.”
Hank3 is not clean. He’s not pretty, he’s not perfect, but he’s certainly his own man, a point hammered home on Friday.
Draped in the tattoos and tattered denim of an apocalyptic cowboy, Williams stormed his six-piece band out the gate with a wild “Ramblin’ Man,” “Thrown Out Of A Bar” and “Smoke And Wine.” On all three, Williams’s raspy vocals and frenetic work on his Guild acoustic were matched by Daniel Mason on banjo, David McElfresh on fiddle and former Jesus Lizard Duane Denison on guitar, all charging forward with Matt Bohli (drums) and Anthony Galler (upright bass) to keep the first set’s breakneck pace.
Whether on the runaway “Held Up” or irreverent sing-a-long “Rebel Within,” the sextet set the crowd ablaze with stomping, searing instrumentation, and set themselves apart from the type of genre pretenders Hank3 has railed against. If they needed to create more separation, they did it with their three-song “Hellbilly” set, with songs like “Hillbilly Joker” and “Life Of Sin” teaming a country foundation with straightforward brute force.
After that, things got interesting – and confusing.
Following the opening came three sets that were not even remotely stylistically related to the early locomotive rhythms. First came Hank3’s rebelcore set culled from 2013’s “A Fiendish Threat,” a punk rock album seemingly informed by early-80s Bad Religion records. Next was an hour-long Black Sabbath-hued set with Williams side project Attention Deficit Domination (A.D.D.), which featured Hank3’s vocals transformed into a hybrid of the late Lane Staley and Dracula.
And just when you thought the night couldn’t get any darker, Williams slipped on a leather mask for bizarre cattle auction-set metal tunes of another side gig, 3 Bar Ranch.
The final set’s gonzo performance of songs like “Now There’s A Bull” featured Hank3’s thrusting Gibson backed by Phillip Cancilla’s machine gun percussion, combining for an ear-splitting sound akin to the impact of a dump truck full of dinner knives and dynamite after a drop off downtown’s Electric Tower.
But outlaws do what they want, not what people expect. If that means transitioning from a bourbon-drenched hillbilly jamboree to an end-of-days metal death rattle, then so be it. If that means swapping a cowboy hat for a freaky disguise before the fifth set, super.
Guys like Williams don’t care for rules, and that’s a good thing. Country music’s always needed its wild cards.