On an average Thursday night in the early spring of 2012, the Glass Cactus in Grapevine, next to the monolithic Gaylord Texan Hotel was empty. Such a scenario seemed stranger still, given the night club's reputation as a prime cougar den and ideal spot for business travelers looking for a good Texas-style time on the dance floor. Oddly enough, Thursday night's at the Glass Cactus were reserved for "Texas Music," so a lack of out-of-towners with hotel rooms seemed even more ironic.
As empty as the club, specifically the expansive dance floor in front of the room was that night; the stage was kind of packed. Two bands were on tap that night with local favorites Eleven Hundred Springs playing the late set. That band's gear was partially set-up near the back of the stage as a raucous quartet from El Paso lay waste to the parts of the stage that Eleven Hundred's gear wasn't set. Without giving a crap about how many people were in front of them, the Dirty River Boys brought the noise in the form of their take on honky-tonk, punk, folk, and even a Celtic jig or two.
With only an assortment of acoustic instruments and a wooden box for the beat at its disposal, this group made me a true believer. It was a revelation. That performance personified the idea of a hungry young band that plays with the same passion to five people they would employ if playing to an arena full of screaming drunks.
Now, Nino Cooper, Marco Gutierrez, Travis Stearns and Colton James, have been legit headliners since the release of Science of Flight, the group's first full-length (two rustic, yet powerful EPs had been released previously) in the fall of 2012. And, before I confuse anyone, that record, and especially 2014's self-titled album are fantastic examples of a band that runs in Texas Country circles but have more than busted through such limiting barriers from a sonic perspective. Their albums have grown with the live version of the band with the guys plugging in and cranking the amps on this latest record more than it had ever before.
The key to the group's live show domination goes beyond the infectious energy which emanates from the stage it inhabits. Any given Dirty River Boys show is damn near a rock and roll variety hour. The group will headline a show at the Granada Theater tonight and it's sure to be raging. The energy that will be exhibited is even cooler given the group, which began as a trio, minus James, playing as quietly as it could in corners of El Paso restaurants and coffee houses. Take a look at the "About page" on the group's official Facebook page and you'll see each member is responsible for many roles. Each guy has at least four duties listed, but it seems like each one does more. And those roles are carried out in a wild-ass, backwoods form of musical chairs. Everyone sings lead at some point. Most play the other's instrument, including the upright bass usually played by the Hank Sr. look-alike James. The circuit-style performance is done seamlessly, but not so polished it loses character. You are never anything but fully engorged engaged during a DRB concert.
Unlike many of the revered vets of the regional touring circuit such as Reckless Kelly, Charlie Robison, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers Band and the Turnpike Troubadours, who all proffer expertly executed sets with amazing consistency, DRB kicks things up a few notches in a way that simply no other act touring Texas (and beyond in many cases) are doing, thanks in large part to their form of instrumental A.D.D. In all fairness, one's status as a true Texan should rightfully be questioned should someone admit to not having ever sang along to "The Road Goes on Forever" at a Robert Earl Keen show, but as special as that individual experience is, it often has more to do with the listener's connection to the iconic song, and not so much the performance of the song itself. For example, I won't lie, for me, Keen could hold up poster boards with the lyrics to that song on them while standing on a stage and I'd still be shouting "Texas Forever!" with my shredded throat after he was done.
A Dirty River Boys show is about what they do to you, the concert attendee in the moment you are watching them.
This past July, just before the latest album came out, the group took the Gas Monkey Bar 'n Grill stage on a gorgeous night. This time, hundreds were there for them, not the souvenir Gas Monkey shirts. Cooper and Gutierrez, the two "front-men" if only because they handle the majority of the lead-singing were looking more dapper than before. An electric guitar or two could be spotted on the stage. Stearns, sitting behind them had a couple a few percussive toys added to the wooden box he sits on and slaps while James looked even buffer in his white tank than before.
They certainly looked more polished. I had seen them a time or two since that lonely Glass Cactus Night, but this was the first time I felt like I might be watching something akin to DRB 2.0. Had they gone too far? Did they get too pretty? Had they ditched their dusty mélange of rootsy tunes in favor of some sort of stab at the so-called Texas Country big-time? Quick answer: no. Not even close.
While the boys were more fluid in their movements, and suave in their appearance, the grit and the electricity that has made their shows the best of any band driving a white van around this state was intact and powerful. Going from old, acoustic-driven sing-alongs such as "Boomtown," to a faithful rendition of "Blitzkrieg Bop," to honor Tommy Ramone, who had just passed that week, the foursome was flawless when they could've been terribly flawed, given the hyper nature of its shows.
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The Dirty River Boys is the best live act this state has seen in a seriously long time. And they're still getting started. The only thing they're done with is playing to empty suburban dance floors.
THE DIRTY RIVER BOYS perform tonight at the Granada Theater. 3524 Greenville Avenue, Dallas, TX 75206. (214) 824-9933. www.granadatheater.com
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