Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers at 504

The newest place in Des Moines to see live music is the 504 Club.

Located at 504 Locust Street in downtown Des Moines, this venue offers a chance for music lovers to see local, regional and national acts. Friday night featured Des Moines' favorite party band, Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers and we took it as an excellent opportunity to check out what this new place was all about.

The first thing that caught my attention was how big the place is. Most of the music venues in town run a little small... One of the reasons that the larger national acts are hard to book in the bars... But at 504 Club, space is certainly not an issue. The band was already on the stage when I walked in, and even though there was over 50 people in attendance, the place seemed empty.

The next thing I noticed was the sound... Holy Amsterdam that place sounds great! Whether it was because of the sound engineer or the acoustics of the venue itself, I do not know. I am guessing however that it is a combination of both... The sound booth is a modern state of the art facility in itself, and with the shiny wooden floors, the open ceiling and the large spacious room, the reverberation in the concert hall is amazing.

The High Rollers were already half-way through Light 'em up!, a home grown number they wrote and performed with Afroman, and it was immediately apparent that on this particular night Johnny Reeferseed was smoking the best of his stash. The groove was ridiculous (is there a better word?) and with the acoustics in this joint, the sound was bouncing off of the walls like musical popcorn. I knew right away that I was in for a wicked night of live music.

Incidentally, Light 'em up! was awarded the Best Funk Song at the Marijuana Music Awards in Austin, Texas in 2008 and even gained mention in High Times magazine. Friday night it sounded especially jazzy, because joining the High Rollers on the stage was Erik Brown (from The Maw) with his oddly shaped trumpet.... The horn's rich, fluent sound was the perfect accompaniment to Jacob County's raunchy guitar licks. In fact, it sounded so tight that I wasn't even aware that Erik was playing until I looked up and noticed him on the stage.

After Light 'em up, the band rolled right into their version of I'll Be There, a twisted remake of the Jackson 5 classic. The stage lighting took on an orange hue that dispensed beautiful and deep shadows over the band members and the their equipment, and not only did this Motown cover sound fantastic, it also looked great! Johnny Reeferseed's gruff, throaty vocals are an interesting alternative to the smooth boyish crooning of Michael Jackson, but like everything the High Rollers attempt to do, somehow it works.

You and I must make a pact
To go out and find a big fat sack
Where there's kind bud... I'll be there.

I'll reach out my blunt to you
I'll fill your bong with fresh water too
When you need a bong hit... I'll be there.

And so forth... You get the idea. (Check it out for yourself here.)

Jacob County is known as one of the premier guitar players in the midwest, and his versatility might be matched only by a few. He can go from playing raunchy funk riffs to sweet and smooth melodies in no time at all. Whether he is playing funk, motown, or gritty honky tonk riffs, he is a master of his domain and it's always a treat to watch his body bend and reach in every attempt to find that perfect note. One thing is for certain... Nobody has more fun playing their guitar than Jacob County does and this was apparent judging by the big flashy smile on his face while they played I'll be there.

Johnny Reeferseed is no slouch on the guitar himself, and isn't afraid to take the lead. He is to Jacob County what Brian Jones was to Keith Richards, and together they recreate that incredible sound that the Stones had in the early '70s with the Let it Bleed and Beggar's Banquet albums. Pure rock and roll the way it was meant to be played is what epitomizes that High Roller sound.

Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers

Along with Johnny Reeferseed and Jacob County, the band features Beth Spaniels who is as versatile on the bass as Jacob is on the guitar, Keef Hashman on the keyboards (who was mysteriously absent on this night), and Burnt Reynolds on the drums. With years of playing together, this band has formed a sound so tight that it seems that they could play these songs in their sleep. The addition of Erik Brown on this particular night was a special treat because of his rare and uncanny ability to play his trumpet alongside any music genre and make it sound like it is supposed to be there.

The next little number they rolled up was one of their own, called Dine and Dash. It is essentially about what you would think it's about... Eating at a restaurant that you know you cannot afford to eat at, and simply dashing out before paying the bill. It's a fun, fast song that conjures up mental images of the High Rollers running away from a diner towards their van in the style of the Scooby Doo gang as they are chased by scary phantoms.

Speaking of Scooby Doo, it must have been time for some Scooby Snacks because after Dine and dash, the band exited the stage for a well deserved intermission.

This gave me a chance to take a look around and see what the 504 Club was all about. The bar is about a mile long it seems, and is tended by what has to be some of the most beautiful girls in Des Moines. The place is set up as a giant dance hall with a few tables scattered here and there. The area right in front of the stage is wide open, and it makes for a great concert viewing experience. Behind the stage is a wall that hides a stairway, that leads up to the green room, a locker room of sorts where the bands converge before and after the shows. In the room is a couple of tables and chairs, bottled water, and miscellaneous coats and what not. There are also a row of windows that allow the band to look out over the venue and the activities below. The band was not there, probably taking advantage of the cool crisp air in the back door alley.

The stage as seen from the "green room."

After a short intermission, the High Rollers took the stage for the second set of the evening. Immediately they went into the Willie Dixon/Howlin' Wolf classic, Little Red Rooster, which featured Jacob using a PBR bottle as a slide for his guitar. Maybe the band was still shaking off of the chill from being outside, but this wasn't their best effort, in my opinion. They more than made up for it with their next attempt, a slow but rousing rendition of the Rolling Stones' Miss You. I have said it a few times... When they are on, The High Rollers play this song better than the Stones did and that is not an exaggeration. That again was the case on Friday night. Erik Brown was hitting the notes on his trumpet, and the song's slow groove brought the concert hall back to life.

Next in line was Long Black Veil a country classic that was originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1959. Generally not a song that one would expect to be heard from a party band, this number is generally reserved for country greats. But it has been covered by the likes of  The Jerry Garcia Band, Johnny Cash, and even Dave Mathews. It's a haunting song about a man who is mistakenly accused of murder. The judge offers him freedom from execution if he can offer an alibi, but he refuses. His alibi is a secret that he takes to his grave - that he was that he was sleeping with his best friend's wife.

Jacob County on the beer bottle slide

Next came a smokin' version of Prince's Kiss... It was played in true High Roller fashion, with the bass thumping and the guitars chugging. Again, Johnny Reeferseed's vocals were low and gruff compared to those on Prince's original version, but he managed to pull it off, much to the delight of the crowd.

The song seemingly came out of nowhere...  It started off with a little hippie jam that could have gone in a multitude of different directions. Everybody in the room seemed caught off guard that this was the song that the band eventually settled on, perhaps most notably, Erik Brown who had just settled into a psychedelic trumpet groove when the rest of the band broke into Kiss. It didn't take him long to catch up, and he more than made up for it with a blistering horn solo in between the second and third verses. That's one element of this band that separates them from most others... They will take any song and make it their own. I'm not much of a fan of the radio version of Kiss, but would love to see the High Rollers play it again.

Jacob County and Erik Brown

Next in line came a couple of  Johnny Reeferseed originals, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, and Fight Fuck and Drink. Both of these tracks are on the play list linked above, and are worth listening to.

Because of a prior commitment at another venue, I was making my way out the door at this point of the show. However I was stopped in my tracks when suddenly the band broke into one of my all time favorite songs, Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released. So...I took a glance at my watch and decided I had time for one more. I grabbed a drink from the bar and settled in.

The High Rollers play this song well... Very well. Johnny Reeferseed's vocals are perfect for it, and he sings it like it was meant to be sung, with spiritual conviction. It was a beautiful version as it always is when The High Rollers play it, and not until the song concluded, did I make my way out onto the street.

I am convinced that Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers is the ultimate party band. One can see that they are serious and a very talented group of musicians, despite what the initial assumptions of this band might be, based off of their name. Do not be fooled... When this band hits the stage, they come to play, and when they play, it's a party. And it is impossible not to have a good time.

Kudos to the 504 Club for letting this happen.

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