“Don’t forget about the big dance floor down here,” said Chuck Mead, motioning to the crawlspace in front of the stage at Willie’s Locally Known last night already occupied by a string of sizeable stage monitors.
A few couples squeezed into other available spaces to two-step (or something close to it) to the self-described “big country show” Mead brought to town. But those content to sit back and soak in the litany of traditional and roots-driven sounds the singer and his trio, the Grassy Knolls Boys, summoned certainly didn’t miss out. As a friend once told me, “You can dance to anything.” And indeed, the expert level of vital, vintage fare Mead was dishing deserved active listening from its audience.
Mead had a new album to promote, a fine Kansas-themed record call Free State Serenade that dominated roughly half of the 75 minute set.
The show-opening combination of Knee Deep in the Wakarusa River and The Devil By Their Side (which also serve as the first two tracks on Free State Serenade) were, to borrow a term from the latter tune, “cornfield shuffles” that centered around the continually spry pedal steel guitar colors of Carco Clave, a lightly toned but swiftly paced rhythm section and a vocal lead from Mead full of country reverence but also a hint of wry humor that helped seal the deal on this music.
Such a game plan further unfolded in the UFO parable Ten Light Years Away. Mead prefaced the tune with a story detailing the flatness of his home state (“There would be about six trees between you and Canada”) before the song outlined the prospect of an actual extraterrestrial landing there (“That ain’t no Chevrolet”).
The rest of the show was equally roots-driven, but drew on a wider range of source material. Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys took highly appealing stabs at tunes popularized by Buck Owens (Hello Trouble), Ray Price (Crazy Arms) and Del Reeves (Girl on the Billboard), as well as several appealing flashbacks to the singer’s tenure in the country roots band BR549. From that bunch, the beer-soaked neo-ballad Lifetime to Prove best reflected the soul, sass and solemnity that drove this Saturday night country revival.