Backup bands get no respect. When they’re good, they’re taken for granted, blend into the background and are forgotten for their role in elevating the lead singer. When they’re bad, the whole show suffers. The latter was the case at the Junior Brown show at The Commonwealth Room on Friday night.
Brown, who invented and masterfully plays a guitar-lap steel hybrid he calls the guit-steel, was admittedly not on his a-game either. The show was stalled often for guitar tuning, full of dad jokes and when he bantered with the crowd his poor enunciation resulted in an experience that was like engaging in a one-sided conversation with Mush Mouth from the ’70s TV show Fat Albert.
After a slow start with “Broke Down South of Dallas” and “Party Lights,” it was clear that Brown’s band was not holding up their part of the deal. As he meandered through songs at what felt like a slower pace than usual, the band kept the rhythm at it’s typical pace—something a better band would not have done—resulting in a set that largely felt disjointed and sometimes just plain off.
Playing rhythm guitar in Brown’s band is his wife, Tanya Rae Brown, who took a turn at the mic mid-set and managed to eek out not even a bit of individuality as she sang a song in Brown’s exact style, form and wit. Look, everything is derivative. I get it. Brown himself is made up of equal parts of Ernest Tubb, Hank snow and Hank Thompson. But, Tanya could have used that moment to shine.
Shine is exactly what Brown did when he was focusing less on vocals and more on his own instrument—he’s a damn fine guitar and steel guitar player—especially on the faster-paced songs in his set. During “I Hung It Up,” he played the steel in a register that was so high pitched that it would have been hard to listen to, if it had not been so well done.
Instrumentals were aplenty at the show, in addition to his “Surf Medley,” which makes it seem like Texas and California aren’t so far apart, geographically or culturally, the band tackled some traditional five bar blues and, bizarrely, the theme song to Benny Hill (but no women were chased around trees, to my knowledge). Even during the instrumentals, and his own solo, his drummer (who’s name I cannot find on the internet) looked dead in the eyes and bored out of his mind.
Brown often spoke to the crowd, but generally it was in lame jokes. After “Hang Up and Drive,” a song that catered to the older demographic at the show in that “You damn kids get off my lawn!” sort of way, he told the crowd, “You need to get humbler with your Tumblr, your Tinder caused a fender-bender, your Pinterest is of no interest, your Instagram caused a traffic jam.” Though the crowd cheered each, I was left groaning in that “Dad, you’re embarrassing me in front of my friends,” kind of way.
And he closed out the set with “Secret Agent Man” and one last dad joke when he quipped, “Secret aging man…” while tipping his cowboy hat to show his male-pattern baldness. Sure, aging can be your excuse, Junior. But what was your band’s?