Warning: this could happen to you. You are in a quiet bar or coffee shop talking with friends. During a bit of thoughtful discussion, you are caught unaware. Bearded white men have unexpectedly blocked your egress. They pick up guitars and begin awkwardly strumming a blues song. You have seconds to decide whether to abandon expensive drinks or endure a potentially painful set of tunes about alcohol and frugal living. What you have experienced is roots revival, and it affects hundreds of people each year. There are warning signs: postings for an “open mike” night or a mandolin casually dangling off someone’s shoulder are usually cause for alarm.
Roots music is often a natural next step for punk-rockers and garage enthusiasts. And there are young bands who can replicate the early music of the disenfranchised without looking ridiculous. The shrewd, sped-up version of rockabilly delivered by the Los Angeles-based Blasters comes to mind, as does John Doe’s extensive career after X. More recently, singer and guitarist Holly Golightly has joined the ranks of those who are able to credibly update a set of songs pontificating on the woes of a bygone era. The ex-Headcoatees singer’s snotty-with-a-hint-of-blasé vocal style brought grit to the simple three- and four-chord punk songs written by Headcoats front man Billy Childish. She began exploring roots music while Headcoats offshoot the Headcoatees were still together, releasing her first solo album, The Good Thing, in 1995. Since then she has released over a dozen solo projects, including four with her writing partner Lawyer Dave, who with Golightly comprises the core of the Brokeoffs. The two play live primarily as a duo, and a recent gig at the Knitting Factory showed them to be seasoned and charming performers.
The Knitting Factory show included a mix of upbeat, balladesque originals with a couple of traditional songs peppered into the set. As the first guitar chords rang out, Golightly and Dave were bathed in red, a lighting scheme that would have served equally well at an intimate Slayer concert. The band opened the show with a rendition of the traditional “Crow Jane.” Golightly and Dave’s version of the much-recorded standard quickly established the advanced sense of vocal harmony shared between the two. Golightly’s voice had a stark, matter-of-fact quality that sold her connection to lyrics of a bygone era. Equally impressive was Dave’s ability to play slide guitar while striking a snare drum and cymbal simultaneously with one foot and a bass drum with the other. But while his guitar playing was technically competent it was never flashy. The indefinable sensitivity he showed throughout the set derived from sincere interest in the material rather than just the notes.
Golightly and Dave continued the show with “My 45,” a song from their second album, as a duo. After the murderous construct of “Crow Jane,” “My 45” appeared to be creating a narrative: “When I call your name / You better run / You better hide / My 45.” As the show continued with more lighthearted songs about guns and booze, the scarlet lighting-scheme began to make sense.
The Knitting Factory crowd was enthusiastic from the start, but the audience really perked up at the opening chords of “Devil Do,” the first song from the duo’s first album, You Can’t Buy a Gun When You’re Crying. Like most of the set, the song was plumper and more vivacious live than in the sparse original recording. It seems reasonable that Golightly would not try to reproduce that more confined sound on stage, and while the compressed intimacy of the album was lost at the Knitting Factory, the songs gained charm through the band’s enthusiasm, impressive musicianship, and sly rapport with the audience. The stories they shared with us occasionally seemed a bit affected. Golightly and Dave evidently do raise chickens and horses on a farm in Georgia, but there were wilder claims made during the set, including one that Golightly intentionally tried to run Dave down with a car. I’m usually skeptical of tales of excess like this, but somehow Holly and Dave’s repartee sold me. The band’s closing number, “Getting’ High for Jesus,” also had an aura of mystery, as Lawyer Dave proclaimed that the group had been banned from Salt Lake City for performing it. I couldn’t find any further information on either of these incidents, and after a light search I decided to stop looking. The charm of the band was that they weren’t rockers learning the ins and outs of roots music, but rather two people evoking traditional genres to tell about their lives—or at least a reasonable perception of their lives. They seemed to like each other just enough to support an evening of attempted vehicular manslaughter and laugh about it later. I may not have been quite fooled, but the narrative of their songs came across sincerely and honestly. Whether or not a roots duo is really out-of-control enough to be banned from Salt Lake City, I do not know. But for the sake of a sliver of sincere Americana, I’d like to believe it.
BILLUPS ALLEN is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. He publishes a comic zine called Cramhole and regularly contributes to Razorcake magazine.