An Inspiring Lockdown-Era Performance by a Heartland Rock Icon Immortalized on Video
Today’s installment of this month’s celebration of big sounds and epic releases is a massive 22-track live-in-the-studio video by a well-loved fixture in heartland American rock, Sam Llanas. The co-founder of Milwaukee legends the BoDeans put out two concert-length DVDs, recorded at JEM Studios there during the spring and summer of 2020. The first performance, from May 23 of that year, is the best. The show was webcast live and the audio is up at archive.org.
What’s coolest about this is that it isn’t all familiar BoDeans hits: Llanas has staked out a prolific career since then, strongly represented here. The band play without a break and barely any time between songs: by the end, everybody’s sweating under the stage lights. We don’t get to see the audience: much as he’s playing an intimate space, Llanas projects stadium-sized energy.
Recipe, from Llanas’ album Return of the Goya, Part 1 sets the stage. Joe Ellis’ lusciously textured production puts Llanas’ acoustic guitar high in the mix, reminding how crucial his dynamic, varied rhythm work was to the BoDeans. Sean Williamson adds spare, sizzling lapsteel riffs over Mike Hoffmann’s bass and Matt Rhyner’s drums.
Next is Follow Your Heart, a country-flavored Texas shuffle, and then a flinty, tightly ticking take of another country-flavored anthem, All Alone Again. Llanas tells the cameras that his country roots were already showing when he wrote Lookin’ For Me Somewhere back in the 80s; this version swings more, with atmospheric steel from Williamson.
Likewise, they reinvent another big hit, Misery as a simmering roadhouse anthem, straightening out the rhythm and letting Williamson off the leash for a searing solo. Llanas segues into Sylvia, something he’s been doing onstage for years. There’s also plenty of sizzle in the evocative minor-key highway anthem Long Way Home
The band reach for a rolling thunder Dylan atmosphere with Don’t Cha Just Know, the first of a handful of numbers from Return of the Goya Part 2. The band switch out the noir for a majestic blend of jangle and clang in The Best I Can, from Llanas’ 2014 album The Whole Night Thru and bring the energy even higher in a long, roaring version of Déjà Vu. And the band ramp up the angst and regret in Cold & Clean.
The last nine songs are as strong an ending to a setlist as anything Llanas has ever played. Wham, one after the other, starting with a fast, scorching version of Black White & Blood Red: it’s 180 degrees of how the BoDeans used to play it. You’ll have to supply the audience response on True Devotion yourself – although you won’t, a few songs later, on Still the Night
The best song of the set – and one of Llanas’ best ever – is 617. another version that’s sped up to the point where the claustrophobia and desperation in Llanas voice takes on new intensity, something he revisits with the next-to-last song of the set, Far Far Away From My Heart. He keeps the volume up but completely flips the script with a simmering, bluesy Hold on Tight, then a surprisingly fresh take of the obligatory Runaway
They race through Fadeaway and close with Naked, which Llanas surprisingly slows down even more than he would do with his old band, wrenching out undiminished passion after damn near two hours onstage. Lockdown? What lockdown?