Dale Watson Brings His Crusade for Real Country Music to Midtown

by delarue

Dale Watson‘s Tuesday night show at Slake, in the old Downtime/Albion space a couple of blocks south of Madison Square Garden, did not begin well. Much as the honkytonk outlaw has a great band, the Lone Stars – Don Pawlak on pedal steel, Chris Crepps on upright bass and Mike Bernal on drums – watching those guys without hardly any of Watson’s vocals in the mix was akin to watching George Jones lipsync. And Watson has an axe to grind. Later in the set, when at last the vocals had been brought up to audible level after repeated complaints from the crowd, he recalled being backstage at the Country Music Awards a few years back and overhearing Merle Haggard and George Jones talking. A guy in a CMA shirt walked by, and one said to the other (Watson couldn’t remember which), “CMA, that stands for Country, My Ass.”

So Watson wrote a song about it, and the rest is history. His contempt for the lightly Americana-flavored corporate pop coming out of Nashville is well known – he played that one, and bookended the set with I’d Rather Be an Old Fart Than a New Country Turd, his kiss-off to Blake Shelton. That virtriol resonated with the crowd, and Watson – a guy who knows which side his bread is buttered on – fed off it, taking requests in between sharing rounds of shots for the band furnished by liquored-up customers. He calls his music Ameripolitan rather than country since that term has been hijacked and misused in the same way that irony has been by the matching-manpurse-and-socks crowd. And when he wasn’t shilling for Lone Star Beer – his Telecaster has a Lone Star sticker on the pickguard – he was shilling for the Ameripolitan Awards, a celebration of genuine, original Americana sounds that you can participate in and vote for your favorite artists in honkytonk, rockabilly and other styles.

In between requests – a pretty thundering version of the cheating song Exit 109, the scampering cry-in-your-beer anthem Fox on the Run and others – Watson mixed up the hits with new material from a forthcoming album, which he’ll be touring with Rev. Horton Heat next year. The biggest crowd-pleaser was I Lie When I Drink – the best track on Watson’s 2013 album El Rancho Azul – inspired by a comment from a heckler responding to one of Watson’s shout-outs to Lone Star Beer.

Much as Watson’s songs can be buffoonish, he’s actually a very sophisticated, nuanced singer, pulling on and off the mic with the subtlety of a jazz singer – which, when you think about it, Watson actually is, since he plays western swing. And much as that souful baritone is what he’s best known for, he’s also an excellent guitarist, flatpicking through a Gentle on My Mind soundalike with a nonchalant expertise. He traded riffs animated with Pawlak, and gave the rhythm section plenty of space to flex their chops as well.

The rest of the set was an eclectic mix of styles: the western swing shuffle South of Round Rock; a handful of hypercaffeinated Jerry Reed-style numbers from Watson’s latest album The Truckin’ Sessions Trilogy; an “obligatory” Merle cover, Silver Wings, and an unexpectedly moody new ballad before the final boisterous outro. It made sense in a city whose default music is, as Watson calls it, Ameripolitan. Who would have thought that ever would have happened, twenty years ago?