Tuesday, May 1, 2012

J. Reeferseed & High Rollers Hull Ave Tap 4/20/12

If Christmas has Santa Claus, then national Counterculture Day (or April 20th) has Willie Nelson. Closer to home however, the holiday's official icon just might be Johnny Reeferseed. This past Friday night he blazed into the Hull Avenue Tap with his original gang of outlaws, The High Rollers for what turned out to be one helluva smokin' good time.

There was no need to drive to the bar, I figured. The cops, who by now are well aware of the meaning of the old hippie code 420, would surely be out in full force, combing the streets for any "suspicious"  people and/or vehicles. By the grace of good fortune, the Hull Avenue Tap is a mere three blocks away from my girlfriend's house, which makes for an easy walk when the opportunity arises. As it turned out we were lucky... There wasn't a parking spot within two blocks of the tavern.



We opted to use the back entrance of the bar as it normally is a bit more inconspicuous than walking through the front door. On this particular night, being obscure was merely a pipe dream; there were a hundred people outside the bar smoking cigarettes and (to quote Arlo Guthrie ) "all kinds of things." Immediate entrance to the bar was futile as we bumped into several friends who were gathered outside. There were also a hundred people that we didn't know, and the level of intensity was at a noticeable high. It became evident right away that this wasn't a normal Johnny Reeferseed crowd and while being in danger was never an issue, there was an unsettling feeling of combustion in the air. It was intense and the vibe was slightly rough. People were very drunk and milling about belligerently, weaving in and out of the crowded pockets of the revelers that had formed outside to smoke. Chatter was loud, plentiful and mostly incoherent.The atmosphere was rare... The scene was poppin'!

It was apparently break time as a band called Fruition had just left the stage.

I was unfamiliar with the bands in the lineup except for Johnny Reeferseed. I was assuming that the entire lineup was created with the 4/20 holiday in mind. The bill listed four bands: Dogomite, Fruition, The Bastard Assholes, and Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers. Being eleven o'clock we had already missed Dogomite and Fruition. However, having not entered the bar, and because nobody was talking about the bands, we didn't know this yet.

We were hanging out talking to some friends outside the back door. Some dude ducked into the circle we were conversing with, threw his arms back, puffed his chest out and said something along the lines of "Arghurraaagggggulllod!" Then he disappeared.

The heavy drinking crowd was in full representation. This was a unique brood... You know the types - The ones who get out once or twice a year as opposed to those who check out the local music scene every weekend. When they do come out they arrive as human wrecking balls, like kids turning 21 on New Years Eve. The Hull Avenue Tap has a reputation for being a rough and intoxicated place at times, and it was certainly living up to it's reputation on this night.

Eventually we made our way into the bar and it seemed to be filled to maximum capacity despite the hundred or so who were still outside. The crowd indoors was equally wound up. It was separated into various groups of people with lots of stragglers milling about. The bar itself was three people deep, and the two bartenders had their work cut out for them. Whiskey was being shot in alarming doses, puddles of Jagermeister were being spilled on the bar, and the bartenders were doing everything they could do to keep up with the demand. They were doing a great job despite it seeming like a  scene out of the old west. We managed to score a couple of drinks relatively quickly and spotted Jacob County standing across the room. He was with his band mates, the additional High Rollers, who all had a look of discern on their faces. It was well past 11:00 and I was wondering why they hadn't taken the stage yet. The uneasy feeling that was so evident outside was even more prominent inside, and the High Rollers had looks on their faces like they were not sure what to expect.

"Kinda nuts in here tonight, man!" I said to Jacob.

"Yeah, a little bit!" he replied with a laugh. "There's still a band paying before us."

"You mean you guys aren't even next?"

The band that was next was TBA, or as they are otherwise known as, The Bastard Assholes. TBA is a three piece outfit, but the amount of equipment they were hauling up to the stage was enough to fill up a semi trailer. Neil Peart's drum set doesn't require as much attention as this kit seemed to, and it was as if the bass player and the guitarist each had about 20 sets of speakers and monitors to load on the stage, each one the size of a washing machine. Watching them make trip after trip with their giant speakers, you began to realize one thing: Pretty soon it was going to get louder than fuck in here.

After taking forever to set their equipment up, TBA finally started to play... Or so it seemed. After a few riffs, and just when the song just seemed to get going, they stopped.

This happened two or three times; they'd play well into what could be considered a song and then just  for seemingly no reason, stop playing. Eventually they must have worked out their kinks because on the fourth attempt, they seemed to have found the sound that they were searching for. It became evident because the song lasted about 25 minutes. There was no singing... Just long droned out bass and guitar riffs amplified with heavy percussion. Iron Butterfly would have been proud. These guys make Electric Wizard sound like Smash Mouth.

After about 45 minutes of the loudest and most intense display of sludge rock the world has ever been privy to witness, The Reeferseeds began to get antsy. They started carrying their equipment to the stage area as if to make a point that TBA was encroaching into their time slot. TBA got the hint and abruptly stopped playing. Then they embarked on the tedious task of breaking down their equipment and carrying it off of the stage.

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Ok, back up about 25 years. I'm sitting in Shep's basement apartment in Newton. He and I are polishing off a bottle of Jack Daniels with long careful swigs, talking about how one day we are going to take conquest of the world with our own exotic style of rock and roll. Neither one of us can really play at that point but we are waxing about how in the future we will be packing stadiums and destroying hotel rooms. We'll be as inventive as Zappa, cool as the Stones, as rabid as The Who, and as magnetic the Beatles. We will do whatever we want and draw a crowd doing it... And one day just because we can, we will play a style of mish-mash rock and roll that makes absolutely no sense to anybodies ears. It will be the greatest hustle in the history of music. We will suck as bad as we possibly can, but people will pretend to love it because of who we are. We will piss off the promoters by playing well past the time slot they have allowed us, right up until they walk up onto the stage and unplug our equipment and have us arrested... People will talk about it forever.

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I don't know why, but even now there was something extremely endearing to me about TBA's set. Maybe it's because it was a  nice champion to all the times I've wanted to put my middle finger up for the world to see, or maybe just to prove my point that we people are a herd animal not any different from sheep or other livestock. People often perceive something as being cool, not realizing that they are being served a farce.. Andy Kaufman and Frank Zappa were really good at catching people with this act. So was Lester Bangs...

And despite what anybody else might have thought about them, I really enjoyed The Bastard Assholes and their one finger salute. I guess the 19 year old me hasn't left my soul yet.

Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers finally took the stage. This night it was special because the original lineup was playing together for the first time in a long time. For whatever reason, the band had been on hiatus and it was great to see them together onstage again. The lineup was Johnny Reeferseed on vocals and guitar, the legendary Jacob County playing lead, Keef Hashman also on guitar, Beth Spaniel on the bass, and Joe McGillicutty on the drums.

L-R Jacob County, Keef Hashman, Johnny Reeferseed, and Beth Spaniel
(Photo by The Bigfoot Diaries)

This was the lineup that three times was named the winner of the Marijuana Music Awards, and was once awarded High Times Magazine's Unsigned Band of the Week. This is Iowa's greatest party band, and on any given night, Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers are potentially the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

I'm dead serious.

The atmospheres inside the bar was still insane. The clock was pushing midnight, and people were as wound up as I have ever seen them at the Hull. A human conveyor line was formed throughout the crowd which was assisting TBA with unloading their equipment from the stage and out through the back door. This continued even after the High Rollers began playing. It was reefer madness. The place was completely full and people were cramped together like pigs in a slaughterhouse. It was becoming evident that the 4/20 holiday was in full effect. Marijuana and Jager Bombs make for strange bed fellows, and a cloud of weirdness seemed to settle above the crowd. And just when it was reaching it's fiercest peak, the band started playing.

There's a little ole place across from city hall
That's where some fucked up people come to have a ball
Everybody's getting high, they're feeling alright
Cause it's Mother's Day on a Friday night


There sits Tyrone, he's the king of the block
and he likes to drink Mad Dog round the clock
Don't step on his toes, don't give him no funny looks
or he'll beat your ass down with his vicious left hook
Then he'll take your woman home without even a blink
cause all Tyrone wants to do is fight, fuck and drink


Here come East side Sally from the wrong side of the tracks
Folks say she's got a mattress attached to her back
She's high on whiskey cocaine and ludes
and if you got a big ol' rock, she might go home with you
then you better get ready to swim or sink
cause all sally wants to do is fight, fuck and drink


"Fight Fuck and Drink" was the perfect song to start the night. This song was written as a parodied tribute to Des Moines' East Side, and has since become somewhat of an anthem for the band. Looking around during this song, I noticed that the bar was beginning to empty out a bit. Maybe it was because it was now after midnight, and people had to get home in time to relieve their baby sitters at a reasonable time, or maybe TBA scared everybody away... Whatever the reason, it had suddenly become much easier to breathe inside the Hull Avenue Tap. Those who stayed were treated to a quick but very good set by Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers. It is a treat to see this band play live in any venue, as they absolutely bring it every single time. This night was certainly no different. Whether it was the band's extended wait to take the stage or my own mental illusion from the copious amounts of whiskey I had been ingesting, it appeared that the High Rollers came out firing with both chambers spinning.

Jacob County, Keef Hashman and Johnny Reeferseed onstage with a prop

Beth Spaniel gave another demonstration of why she is one of the finest bass players in Des Moines, especially during the band's version of  the Stones' "Miss You." Joe McGillicutty as always played with an unmatched style and relentless energy. During "Miss You" and "Wild Horses" Johnny Reeferseed, Jacob County, and Keef Hashman traded leads back and forth like a cosmic three way between Mick Taylor, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood. The only thing that was more raw then the trio of guitars was Johnny's made-for-singing-honky-tonk voice. The lyrics flowed like a smoke cloud of sonic utopia.  It's a damn shame that this band isn't the house band somewhere.

Whether they are playing Stones' covers, or one of Afroman's, or even one that they rolled up themselves, Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers know how to throw a party. While this particular night might not have showcased their greatest effort compared to some I've seen in the past, it was still better than anything else I've seen lately.

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Set list (based off memory):

Fight Fuck and Drink
Wild Horses
Miss You
Light 'em Up/ Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself/ Light 'em Up
Brother Can You Spare a Dime
Because I Got High
Dine and Dash

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Pertinent Links:

Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers (Reverb Nation)

Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers (Facebook)

Bigfoot Diaries Interview with Jacob County

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