This may sound blasphemous but Curtiss A’s tribute to country god Hank Williams on Sunday at the packed Dakota seemed more authentic than his annual Dec. 8 salute to rock god John Lennon at First Avenue.
While the Lennon marathon gets overrun with too many musicians participating at once, marring the simplicity of early Beatles music, Curt was committed to making sure he’s done it Hank’s way (including drummer Johnny Haga playing only one snare and a hi-hat). OK, maybe Curt had a couple too many acoustic guitarists at times, but that didn’t hinder the sound.
In fact, the three-set, 30-some song Hank tribute was pretty terrific, from Curt’s perfectly drawling phrasing and lonesome croon to Randy Broughten’s pedal steel teardrops and Dave Boquist’s mournful fiddle. Add in some sweet guitar licks from Dale Strength and Curt’s predictably freewheeling but often funny patter and it made for three hours of classic country entertainment.
A serious student of certain artists including Hank Sr., Twin Cities rock hero Curt Almsted,62, explained early on that of the 30 tunes, “there’s 27 songs where he’s not happy and then we do ‘Jambalaya’ and then he dies.”
Yes, Hank died at age 29, in 1953, in the backseat of his Cadillac but left an incredible catalog of songs as Curt and his band of cowpokes demonstrated.
The dean of scream gave some of his sidemen a chance to sing lead but, while Frankie Lee got into the quiet darkness of “Ramblin’ Man,” none of the singers was as assertive as Curt. Not that Hank was overly forceful. But Curt understood the dynamics, when to go nasally, hiccupy or yodeling-like. A few times, he admittedly shifted into George Jones’ drawn-out, drunken phrasing and, as promised when he gets a little drunk, he slipped into a bit of Elvis Presley style, notably on “Jambalaya.”
Some guests provided some of the high points: Singer/acoustic guitarist Jim Boquist on a swell “Lost Highway” with five other guitarists to help him navigate, and the Cactus Blossoms (a duo of brothers) providing exquisite high harmonies on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Curt’s most distinguished vocal turns came on the playful “Mind Your Own Business,” the very dramatic “Cold Cold Heart” with its elongated phrasing, and the gospelly “Angel of Death.”
As always, Curt filled the night with his eccentric humor, which covered music, politics and aliens. He said the boys couldn’t decide on a name for the seven-member backup band but suggestions included the Hirams (Hiram is Hank’s given name), the High Yellers, the Long Gone Daddies and the Cold Cold Hearts.
At least, Curt had them all sporting cowboy hats (save the drummer) and Western shirts or jackets. The frontman wore a different Western getup for each set but had the same Xeroxed photo of Hank glued to his acoustic guitar all night and a flask wrapped in a bandana on his microphone stand. “It’s a prop. It’s empty,” he said as he took a swig.
Prop or not. Band name or not. There’s no doubt Curtiss A’s Hank Williams tribute should be presented at least a couple times a year.