By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
You know what they done?
Bill Kirchen finally had to change the way he sang "Too Much Fun," the signature party tune he wrote during his stint as the guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The singer--in that band the all-too-credible Commander--marveled at being incarcerated simply because he related to city life with too much enthusiasm:
Stole a car, drove to Kalamazoo
met a gal--she was ugly too.
Tall, skinny, bespectacled, and no looker himself, Kirchen carries a strong whiff of high school audio-visual department, which he freely admits to. Soon the hypocrisy behind his singing the couplet got to be too much, and the song lost a line but gained Kirchen's immortal soul. His unlikely appearance makes the rush of notes he produces with his battered Telecaster--which gives all the appearance of having been dragged behind a locomotive--even more striking. Kirchen reads from the Book of Love for American roots-rock almost like a combination professor and tour guide. He has an unparalleled sense of tone and hook, and his twang is monstrous: He once frightened Godzilla away from Tokyo during a Japanese tour.
Kirchen plays lead like a kid showing off with a yo-yo, trying to make you go whoa! at certain moments and hug your baby at others. He has an energy that gives his readings an extra jump, more than just a hint of the renowned Cody mania of old. Because they presented themselves as amiable, stoned, good-time chowderheads, CC&HLPA tend to be overlooked or discounted, but anytime you look at the swing phenomenon, go see Ronnie Dawson, or buy an unattractively colored western shirt with pearl buttons that some old man just gave to Goodwill, you're treading on ground that Kirchen and the rest of the band broke.
Kirchen was with Cody and company for 10 albums and played on band hallmarks such as "Hot Rod Lincoln" (Kirchen's trademark ability to make guitar lines that are insanely catchy, presented in a nutshell) and "Too Much Fun," and sang on classics like "Mama Hated Diesels" and "(Down to) Seeds and Stems Again Blues," all of which you will probably hear. He still captures a great deal of the free-swinging nature of that scene--a bunch of Ann Arbor hippies playing cowboy music--that really was (and is) the key to its appeal, and his shows are a blast.
Bill Kirchen plays the Sons of Hermann Hall on Saturday, February 7.