It wasn’t ten minutes into the performance when I muttered, “Shooter Jennings & Hierophant are a miraculous gift to rock.” The stranger next to me rolled her eyes, but I knew the feeling in my belly, a familiar twitch that I’d experienced seeing The Clash meld punk and politics as a teenager or Guns N’ Roses blissfully destroy The Warfield the night they learned “Welcome To The Jungle” went gold. As the decades and shows pile up, one develops an instinct for when they’re present at a significant moment that excels a good length beyond a mere show.
Clad in faded jeans and none-too-fresh tees, Shooter’s classically scruffy bunch assembled with intense, purposeful gazes behind their leader, who leaned into his Nord Electro 2/Mini-Moog keyboard setup and began the night wearily intoning, “They say good fences make good neighbors, and for you, my friend, this might be true. But, you still have to put bars on the windows to the soul inside of you.” Footloose and fancy-free this was not.
About a year ago, Jennings began a fairly public shift away from his country roots, taking a fresh lineup out on the 2009 Warped Tour and talking about a radically different direction for his next album. He told the Washington Post, “Whether it’s a success or not, at the end of the day I know that I didn’t play by anyone’s expectations. This is the anti-expectations album.” Black Ribbons surely plays to no sensibilities besides Shooter’s own. It is a singular work that signifies the arrival of a fully formed artist, a sea change on par with Radiohead’s OK Computer and The Black Crowes’ Amorica. Shooter’s latest plants a clear, powerful footprint in the earth, screaming about breaking points, “fascocrats” and a churning descent into stifled, Big Brother controlled existence. Black Ribbons is a superb dystopian lens on modern times, and the creepy, clever interludes from Stephen King – who serves as the album’s gallows-witted narrator DJ Will O’ The Wisp – only amp up the anxiety and apprehension in the music. It’s not a happy ride but neither is it nihilistic. There’s stubborn independence and real dedication to big “T” truths like love and family behind the encroaching dark clouds. And the whole thing rocks so hard it hurts.
A few months ago I suggested Black Ribbons might be a masterpiece. Seeing Shooter and Hierophant live, I’m now deadly certain it is. Everything about the new material and the men exploring it strikes deep, showing a profound understanding of rock ‘n’ roll’s potential to be the alpha and omega for some folks. Hierophant’s friction-filled grind of light and darkness throws off sparks that illuminate one’s path.
Outside of a few older numbers in the encore, the set drew exclusively from Black Ribbons, and each piece revealed a level of passion, conviction and skill that can’t be faked. This project and its themes are a slow opening puzzle box with something fresh, insightful and healthily irreverent inside.
Shooter (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards) has a truly stunning band in Hierophant, which includes his longtime .357 rhythm section Ted Russell Kamp (bass) and Bryan Keeling (drums) and newest additions John Schreffler (guitar) and Bobby Emmett (Hammond organ). These players serve their leader’s vision and simultaneously help shape it. There’s no shortage of chops or personality in Hierophant, but a distinct aura of shared purpose infused already killer studio cuts with a bloody-knuckled reach that left myself and a few others visibly shaken, yet unable to resist moving closer to the stage, wide-eyed as we rode their shifting currents and licked the collective wounds they opened up wide. It’s almost too much to ask of audiences looking for a night on the town, but if music means more than entertainment and distraction to you then there’s not much richer or more relevant happening in rock today than Hierophant. And any gig that encourages one to bellow, “Fuck you, I’m famous!” isn’t taking things too seriously.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredibly charming, rocktastic opening set by Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, a swerving, together trio built around Nelson’s quivering, emotion slathered voice and ferocious guitar chops. Echoes of Hendrix, Los Lobos, Buddy Guy and Nelson’s pop Willie cropped up, but always in ways that made one admire how damn fine this young band already is. Very, very easy to like, what one found was the longer they performed the more winning qualities they revealed, from sharply crafted songs to jaw-dropping solos to smart setlist construction to an engaging group energy that spilled off the stage. As first impressions go, I’ve rarely had a better one or been more anxious to delve further into a band’s catalogue afterwards.