From the first note he played on his guitar, it was clear Junior Brown appreciated appearing before a large crowd. He showed his gratitude by giving Reno’s Cargo an earful of a simpler time.
The honky-tonk legend bestowed the audience in the Whitney Peak Hotel on Wednesday, March 25 an eclectic, yet focused, mix of country, blues and rockabilly. He showed all exactly how he has built a long and fruitful career. Throughout the set, Brown’s trademark double-neck guitar/lap steel hybrid, dubbed the “guit-steel,” sang, howled and even joked right alongside Brown. It’s been two years since Brown released an album, but he’s continued voracious touring and his love for performance is as apparent as is his impressive technical ability.
Within Brown’s lengthy guitar solos, there were repeated flashes of his influences. The mix of jazz with country brought Scotty Moore to mind. The pinch harmonics and volume swells were reminiscent of Roy Buchanan. The emotive one and half-step bends? Albert King. But even with each musical reference and nod, Brown wrangled the guitar into something entirely his own. He deftly switched from guitar to lap steel and wowed the audience with virtuosity on both. However, even with all the pyrotechnics of his chops, the most impressive aspect of his playing was his touch. His ability to hold back and give both the guitar and lap steel such a vocal-like quality was, without a doubt, the result of becoming one with his instrument over 40-plus years.
His confidence was unwavering as he sang and joked around with audience on songs like “Hang Up and Drive.” A true showman of yesteryear, Brown’s stage presence was magnetic as he danced and squirmed around his guitar wearing his standard suit and white cowboy hat.
Brown was accompanied by a drummer, upright bassist and acoustic guitarist, Tanya Rae Brown. The simplicity of his band was striking. The drummer only had a crash cymbal and a snare but used them effectively, and the absence of a kick drum was made up for by the unwavering rhythm maintained by the bassist and rhythm guitarist. Their sturdy, understated foundation throughout the set allowed and encouraged Brown to play with the tenacity that he did. Together, Brown and the band turned songs like “Freedom Machine” and “Old Fashioned Love” into western-swing opuses.
Even with all of his talent, a guitarist like Brown would lose the power and punch necessary to perform at such a high level without a band that has such an innate understanding of the backbeat. Brown and his band brought people to their feet and made them scream with his guitar and as he closed the night with medley of “Apache,” “Malaguena” and “Secret Agent Man.” He then looked into the crowd, smiled his cowboy smile and said, “Thank you, so very much.”