in performance: riders in the sky

riders in the sky: joey the cowpolka king, woody paul, too slim and ranger doug.

Here are two reasons why last night’s performance by Riders in the Sky at the Christ the King Oktoberfest was such a seasonal delight.

The first was simply the setting. While the Grammy-winning singing cowboy quartet has become a near-annual visitor to local venues, one would be hard pressed to imagine a more flattering atmosphere for their music than the subtle outdoor cool of the last official night of summer. It gave a whole new dimension to campfire classics like Cool Water, Yellow Rose of Texas and Wah Hoo.

The second was the sight of children dancing giddily near the front of the stage for the bulk of the two set performance. The Riders’ vintage Western music has always been very kid friendly, especially thematically. But that didn’t seem to be what was igniting the youthful spirit. This particular dance crowd was fueled by the inherent joy within the group’s more upbeat melodies, especially those driven by the instrumental interplay between fiddler Woody Paul and accordionist Joey the Cowpolka King. In fact, when the two struck up Clarinet Polka (performed proudly sans clarinet), the kids literally jumped for joy. Playtime had come to Oktoberfest.

The down side to all the merriment was the sound. Feedback and weak vocal mixes persistently dogged the concert.  This has been an ongoing problem for Oktoberfest through the years. We’re the first to admit that having acts like Riders in the Sky play for free at what is essentially a neighborhood block party remains a thrill. But the sound issues continue to be a spoiler.

The sound also seemed to visibly throw the group at times. Luckily, a steady flow of new material (new, at least, to the Riders’ setlist) and audience requests kept the performance flow moving smartly.

The new entries included a harmony rich reading of Trail Dust, a gospel savvy Saddle Up and another appropriate blast of polka fun, Hoop De Doo, where the Riders curtailed the cowboy talk in favor of Lawrence Welk impressions.

The highlight of the requests was clearly the Western staple Streets of Laredo, performed by singer/guitarist Ranger Doug with a properly stoic sense of traditional country longing. That was the moment when this joyride through the traditions of cowboy music pulled up next to the campfires of a very real and sobering world.


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