It was a moment, like so many Riders in the Sky uncorked onstage last night at the Opera House, that had become something of a running gag.
The set-up – the straight man routine, if you will – was a light and regally authentic bit of Western flavored, harmony rich singing titled Wah-Hoo! that re-affirmed the group’s status as leading performance practitioners of the singing cowboy tradition. The punch line was how the tune purposely disintegrated to a duet of Dueling Banjos that bassist Too Slim and fiddler Woody Paul slapped out on their jowls. The latter sounded like Morse code on coconuts and has been part of the Riders’ repertoire seemingly for ages.
Too Slim summed it all up with a remark customized for the occasion: “That’s what Ol’ Man Lexington had in mind when he built this place.”
What “Ol’ Man Lexington” probably didn’t have in mind, though, was the Riders playing to an Opera House that appeared nearly two-thirds empty. Maybe the group’s bag of cowboy tricks has simply lost its sense of surprise after near-annual visits here over the past decade.
That would be a shame, as last night’s performance was, despite the now-familiar array of cowboy classics (Cool Water, Rawhide, Texas Plains) and well worn yuck-provoking routines (Too Slim’s mid-show turn as sidekick/cook Side Meat; Ranger Doug’s recollections of backstage at the Grammys), another grand night among the cardboard cacti.
Among the more refreshing moments: accordionist Joey the Cowpolka King’s polka-fied version of the Les Paul/Mary Ford hit How High the Moon, the spiritually inclined King’s Highway (one of the three tunes from the Riders’ upcoming album of gospel-themed material) and the relaxed harmonies of The Arms of My Love that brought out an uninvited guest: a bat in flight.
This is the second instance this year (that I saw, at least; maybe there were more) of an Opera House show unintentionally adding one of those winged varmints to the performance bill. While it didn’t exactly get in the way of the show (Joey the Cowpolka King used the occasion to tack a bit of the Batman TV theme to the end of Orange Blossom Special), it might make for a better performance if the Riders revamped its setlist a bit and the Opera House thoroughly cleaned out whatever stage regions pass for a belfry.
The crowd seemed to have little idea as to the grand musical pasts that fortified the opening act duo of Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen (Hillman was a founding member of the Byrds and the Flying Burritio Brothers while Pedersen clocked studio time with everyone from Emmylou Harris to The Dillards). That became eerily obvious once the crowd showed heartier recognition for a cover of Buck Owens’ Together Again than it did for the Byrds classic Eight Miles High that traded the original’s psychedelia for an impressive acoustic Western setting performed on mandolin and guitar.
The rest of the duo’s way-too-brief 40 minute set highlighted the conversational harmony of Desert Rose (the title tune from a 1984 Hillman solo album) and Love Reunited (a 1987 country hit for the Hillman/Pedersen-led Desert Rose Band) as well as the familial folk urgency of Wait a Minute (a Pedersen original that has long been a concert staple of the progressive bluegrass band The Seldom Scene).
The music was all impeccably performed. But it was the obvious yet understated chemistry between the two artists and longtime friends that made this mix of grassy folk, revised psychedelia and California-bred country seem harmonious in areas that stretched way beyond the vocal department.