Road Dispatch: Jonathan Tyler at the Variety Playhouse
By Kevin Broughton
On a Thursday night in Atlanta’s Little Five Points, Jonathan Tyler is in an expansive mood. In a couple hours, he’ll open for the amazing Ron Pope and The Nighthawks, then join them for a couple months’ worth of shows on this leg of their nationwide tour.
Tyler’s 2015 release, Holy Smokes, opened to wide critical acclaim and was a springboard to several lengthy tours for him and his stellar backing band, as they opened at various times for the Drive By Truckers, Warren Haynes, and Ray Wiley Hubbard. On this night, though, it’s just Tyler and his guitar. And the aforementioned Mr. Pope? He hails from suburban Marietta, and this 18-and-up show – at the iconic Variety Playhouse -- will be packed with local partisans hailing the hometown hero. No pressure at all.
Over boiled peanuts and Bud heavies and a mostly off-the-record discussion,* Tyler holds forth on the challenges of gigs like this one. “I like playing solo shows because they put me on the spot,” he says. “It's sink or swim. There's no drumbeat or bass line to hide behind. So if the lyrics and the melody don't hold water you're sinking and everybody in the room knows it.”
In his case, it’s no overstatement. Tyler’s band is a stand-alone entity in its own right, Rise and Shine. Their tight arrangements on Holy Smokes were damn near perfect, and he’ll produce their forthcoming album; their absence isn’t an oh-by-the-way thing. Pressure?
“There are times I get nervous enough to drink a liter of whiskey but that's mainly when I'm overthinking things,” says Tyler. “I think I'm finally getting to the point that I've accepted myself and don't really care if I bomb cause I know I'm gonna wake up tomorrow and get another shot.”
Fittingly, at this point Pope strolls into the watering hole, where a table of about a dozen family and well-wishers greet the local hero. Tyler glances at the scene, then at a visitor. “I guess it’ll be a big crowd, huh?” he says with a grin.
He’s right. Pope is as big a draw as you’d expect in his hometown. Bigger than James McMurtry last spring. And probably as big as Steve Earle and the Del McCoury band, circa 1998. Tyler walks out with his black Gibson acoustic, greets the packed house somewhat meekly, and launches into a 10-song set almost exclusively from his new album.
And something’s immediately noticeable about this crowd: he has them. It’s a respectful audience, the kind you see regularly in Austin and wish you had in your town. What’s remarkable is they’re all here to see the headliners; and they don’t make a peep. No grumbling between songs, or agitating for the lead act. They’re listening, and roaring their approval after every song.
Three songs in, Tyler trades the Gibson for a ’73 Telecaster and busts out “River Bottom,” “Honey Pie” and “The Devil’s Basement,” and everyone in the venue is paying rapt attention.
On seeing Tyler with his band, you notice how comparable the live sound is to the album; Holy Smokes wasn’t just slick production. At a solo gig – the first one he’s done in about a year – what’s immediately obvious is that the lyrics, melody and vocals do indeed “hold up,” even at an acoustic setting in big venue. He has this crowd in his hand.
This Pope-crazed audience is both appreciative and understanding of Tyler, bearing with him between songs as he grabs the wrong harp, or is momentarily perplexed by a mislaid capo. “I’m actually looking for my capo,” he says, concealing some stress. “But I’ll be okay…” Mercifully, the missing implement is at his feet, and he won’t be forced to play “To Live is to Fly,” not only without duet partner Nikki Lane, but also in a much lower key.
Picking over the last of the boiled peanuts before show time, Tyler mentioned those moments that make it worthwhile. “When everything connects it feels like I'm channeling God and I ride that wave till they kick me off stage.”
As he wound up his set with electrified versions of “Late Night Special” and “Gypsy Woman,” Tyler may not have channeled The Almighty, but he certainly rode a helluva wave. It portends well for the rest of the tour, and validates Pope’s choice for an opening act: a seasoned pro who shines in any setting.
* Topics may or may not have included: making music with Nikki Lane; United States fiscal policy; whether bro country has its roots in shitty 80s hair music; and the perils of telling Donald Trump jokes to a New York audience. (The biggest peril is cricket noises.)