Concert Review: Ryan Bingham at Royale in Boston, MA
It’s a bit odd to think that Ryan Bingham is an iconoclast in today’s music market – on paper, he’s about as straightforward a musician as they come. But the fact is that in the past few years “rootsy,” “Americana” bands like Mumford and Sons have been popping up into the mainstream consciousness, for the first time (and I’m guessing here) since The Band and Bob Dylan were doing it. Meanwhile interest in bluegrass and honky-tonk in their purest forms is at a high among young people who have absolutely no prior connection to the music, geographic or otherwise. Evidence: a well-attended bluegrass festival recently took place in Massachusetts, of all places. And what’s more, the attendees were not, in large part, old yokels; the main demographic was youngish hippie types and urban hipsters.
But forget all that. It would be a mistake to lump Ryan Bingham and his sound in with this phase of retro – or, less favorably, imitation – American roots music. There are no mandolins or banjos in his act, nor does he have a foot-long beard or trouble himself to talk about “authenticity” in regards to his genre. No — he’s just a rocker, and peppers in country and blues at will, rather than starting in either camp as a foundation.
Ryan is from Texas, has spent a good deal of time in Cali, and has rambled around “all the states in between.” The influence this southwestern environment has had on his music is obvious when listening, but – and here’s the important point – he’s not bashing you over the head with it. He and his band are young and dress like you’d expect a young trendy Los Angeles-based band to. Their prerogative seems not to be reconstruct an old-fashioned look/feel/sound, but instead to make timeless, beautiful, hard-rocking songs that make people smile. And when a band focuses on doing only that, all other cultural pretensions tend to fall away, and the result is widely appealing music.
Ryan was at the Royale Saturday evening. It wasn’t a sold-out show, but the crowd was big enough to fill the room, which is very important for the vibe at the Royale, probably the widest-open club space in Boston. (When the place is half full, it feels pretty much empty). Thankfully though, there are more than enough plaid-shirted twentysomethings and middle aged couples in the Boston area who appreciate country-tinged rock to make the show one of the liveliest I’ve seen there.
Bingham has four LPs worth of material to draw from, stretching from 2007’s excellent Mescalito to this year’s Tomorrowland. Bingham opened the show rocking all-electric with the full band, and after a few songs switched to a beastly 12-string Guild acoustic that, contrary to what might be conventional for rock music, did not mean taking things down a notch. If anything, the songs where Bingham played the twelver on top of his lead guitarist’s electric were some of the most full and rich sounding, and equally hard-hitting.
The band was dialed in, the sound production spot-on, and Bingham’s guitar playing was impressive to hear recreated outside the studio. But the aside from a few show-stealing solos by both Bingham and his lead, the night was dominated by Bingham’s voice. At risk of sounding overly adulatory, I will say this: for the type of music he plays, Bingham’s voice is absolute perfection. It’s scratchy and gritty, but not in a distracting Tom Waits kind of way – he doesn’t ever growl, instead projecting long, wistful notes from all over his range like any classically-trained singer would.
Most importantly, his vocals are strong enough to carry over the huge live sound of his band, and are thus able to complete the overall sound in a way that’s unfortunately uncommon in rock these days. (Too many less-than-exemplary singers intentionally bury their vocals behind overdriven guitars in a live show. Not Ryan.) But it’s when he’s alone on stage that you really are forced to engage with the voice. For the encore – if you can call it that, because Bingham hardly left the stage before it – he played two songs with a six string acoustic that gave this skeptical music snob unadulterated chills. Talking about honesty in music is a cliché as old as rock, but that’s because it’s important – and Bingham’s songs, especially the solo acoustic ones, are straight shots to the gut, with none of the layered abstraction and irony that are rife in today’s postmodern rock world.
Bingham closed out the show with the rest of the band back on stage for two examples of what are perhaps his most iconic songs – ones that he plays on a fretless six string electric, making ample use of a finger slide. He blew through “Sunshine” and “Bread and Water,” both from his Mescalito debut, like a hurricane, with his guitar chops on full display. The songs were loud, hard, gritty, and call to mind images of a motorcycle on an open southwestern highway. For a bunch of Bostonians this was a welcome escape.
For more on Ryan Bingham including tour dates visit his website.