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Jeff Moehlis: Jerry Lee Lewis Still Shakin’ It Up
Just a few days before his 75th birthday, one-time wild man Jerry Lee Lewis (aka “The Killer”) showed that rock ‘n’ roll still courses through his veins — to the delight of the packed crowd at the Fox Theatre Pomona. The show was billed as a birthday celebration, but it was also a makeup performance for Lewis’ disappointing last-minute cancellation from this summer’s Hootenanny 2010 event because of illness.
Lewis, who still sounds great, played a short but sweet set of songs, including several from the early beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. Even more than 50 years after their release, these songs still pack a punch that resonated with the adoring crowd, ranging from old-timers to young and hip Orange County psychobillies.
After four songs by his backing band, Lewis kicked things off with Roy Orbison’s “Down the Line,” a song Lewis first recorded in 1958 that features his trademark boogie woogie piano playing. This was followed by the Hank Williams country and Western ballad “You Win Again.” These songs showed us right away that Lewis, who rarely wrote his own songs, is still one of the best interpreters of the early rock ‘n’ roll and country canons.
Next up was the rollicking “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-De-O-De” with more swinging boogie woogie piano, followed by “Before the Night Is Over” from his 2006 comeback album Last Man Standing and the bluesy “No Headstone On My Grave.”
The aptly name “Rockin’ My Life Away” followed, a song that has been given new life on Lewis’ just released excellent album Mean Old Man, then the late Mickey Newbury’s “Why You Been Gone So Long?” the blues standard “C.C. Rider” and another Newbury song, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”
Lewis closed with the two songs most associated with his name — the glissando fest “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” The latter was scandalous in its day for its sexual innuendo, but seems somewhat quaint compared with the more direct — and less clever) songs of today — such as Bulldog singing “I know you want me / You know I want you” or Nelly singing “It’s getting hot in here / So take off all your clothes.”
Lewis, who showed some sly smiles but otherwise is not terribly animated onstage in his older age — no more lighting pianos on fire, for example — did kick back his piano bench during “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” playing standing up as the crowd went wild.
The evening started off with The Head Cat, a cover band fronted by the legendary Lemmy Kilmister on bass and vocals. Lemmy, once a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, is best known for his speed metal band Motorhead — although, in my opinion, the coolest thing on his resume is his tenure with the psychedelic warlords and space ritualists Hawkwind.
Lemmy was joined by Danny B. Harvey on guitar and former Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom. They ripped it up on Buddy Holly songs “Not Fade Away” and “Fool’s Paradise,” plus “Shakin’ All Over” and “Crossroads” al a Cream,” and the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” sung by Slim Jim.
This was followed by an energetic rockabilly set by Reverend Horton Heat (real name: Jim Heath), celebrating his 25th year of performing with lots of smokin’ guitar runs, accompanied with slappin’ bass by Jimbo Wallace and poundin’ drums by Paul Simmons.
Among the highlights, Heath climbed on Jimbo’s bass while he was playing it on its side, Heath and Head Cat’s Harvey traded licks during the cover of Bill Haley’s “Rock This Joint,” and the frenetic closer “Psychobilly Freakout.” Oh, and of course, “Death Metal Guys,” with the lyrics “Jerry Lee Lewis shot his bass player down / Down to the ground with a .38 round / But death metal guys would have eaten his brains / And people call Jerry Lee Lewis insane,” referring to the 1976 incident in which Lewis accidentally shot his bassist Butch Owens at a party, and the (unrelated) after-death of the vocalist of the Swedish black metal band Mayhem.
Lewis is not insane, but his songs and behavior — including what must be rock ‘n’ roll’s first “sex scandal” of sorts when he married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed — certainly injected some craziness into the fledgling rock ‘n’ roll genre. How cool that he’s still entertaining us with soul-soothing old-time rock ‘n’ roll on the eve of his 75th birthday.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.
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