“You know, everywhere we go we like to turn places into little road houses,” Ryan Bingham said during the first of a two-night stand at the Majestic Theatre. He lived up to his promise.
Bingham, of west Texas, is known for mixing classic country with folk, as evidenced by his Grammy-winning contribution to the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack, but his Madison stint was more about rock ‘n’ roll than anything else.
The band wasted no time transforming the theater into a backwoods honky tonk, kicking off with “Dollar a Day,” a fast-paced rocker with roots going as deep as Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” It was a song that set the mood, launching into the night with hoots, hollers and handclaps.
Tracks like “Guess Who’s Knocking” mixed in Bonham-esque drumming with hard-driving slide guitar, highlighting a Zeppelin influence to Bingham’s style. Still, the blues stomp of “Direction of the Wind” was supported by effortless, understated bass grooves that kept the songs grounded as the guitars rocked away.
In fact, Bingham and his band (not The Dead Horses, which he is usually associated with) played eight straight rockers before slowing it down for “Western Shore,” a song Bingham said was partly inspired by his youth, and partly by interacting with homeless children in tour stop towns. A pair of low-key songs came with the transition to the mellow “Hard Times,” calmly accented by well-placed guitar solos and “I Heard ‘em Say,” a tribute of sorts to the late James Byrd.
During the performance, a disgruntled fan decided it was a fine time to launch a beer cup at Bingham’s head, which he expertly dodged without missing a beat.
“This ain’t my first time at the rodeo,” Bingham said with a laugh after the song. “If that’s my worst problem today, I’m in pretty good shape.”
The night continued on as the beer thrower was escorted out of the crowd.
Bingham’s performance was slightly undercut by the songs themselves as they bordered on the generic, like in the John Mellencamp sound-alike “Heart Full of Rhythm” or the cliché-laced “Ever Wonder Why.” But even in those songs, you can criticize the text, but you can’t deny the sincerity. And that is truly what makes Bingham a first-rate performer. He wasn’t the only one rocking, however.
Singer/songwriter Jake Smith, a giant of a man in all black, with long hair on his head and face, took the stage first. Better known by his stage name, “The White Buffalo,” Smith played as a sort of biker-balladeer, crossing genres from his latest release, Once Upon a Time in the West, to the march/waltz of “Damned” off Hogtied Revisited, a song well-known for being featured on “Sons of Anarchy.”
The lyrical styling of The White Buffalo echoed Hank Williams Jr. on “Bar and the Beer,” a tune Smith actually covered by request, complete with a bit of yodeling at the end. He also channeled the late Townes Van Zandt on “Into the Sun,” as he sang darkly over subtle, finger-picked guitar.
The highlight of Smith’s set came with his performance of “Wish It Was True,” a folksy song that starts off unremarkably about a man apologizing for his life, then cleverly blindsides the audience as a heartbreaking protest song: “Country/ I was a soldier for you/ I did what you asked me to/ It was wrong and you knew/. … Throw me away when you’re through,” Smith sang, delivering a set of lyrics that eclipsed any other words of the night.
The choice of The White Buffalo as a supporting act was a perfect match to help fulfill Bingham’s vision of turning theaters into roadhouses, as both men brought devotion, charm and an excitable love of their art to share with an eager and appreciative audience.