by Julian Spivey
Jason Boland & the Stragglers brought their brand of red dirt country music back to Little Rock, Ark. on Friday, August 25 for the group’s debut at the Argenta Vibe Music Series at the Argenta Plaza in the middle of downtown.
The Argenta Vibe Music Series brings free live music to the public on the last Friday of every month from April through October (with the exception of July due to heat). Well, heat was certainly still an issue in late August with a temperature of 93 degrees and a “feels like” temperature of 101 degrees at the time of the 8 p.m. show. I’m sure the heat kept some folks from attending, but the plaza was reasonably busy despite the excessive heat warning.
Boland and the Stragglers began their set with “The Light Saw Me,” the title track from the group’s most recent album from late 2021, about a fictional UFO spotting. They would segue immediately into “Hank,” a song about the “carbon copy” music of Nashville that’s sure to get a raucous response from any crowd wanting the real thing.
Boland is really good at mixing fan favorites with some deeper cuts throughout his sets and I was thankful to hear “Mary Ellen’s Greenhouse” off 2011’s Rancho Alto, which was the first Boland and the Stragglers album I familiarized myself with thanks to a local radio station that would play stuff out of the country music mainstream (and unfortunately didn’t last long). The band would later play “Fences,” off the same album, a tune about America’s not-so-terrific relationship with Native Americans.
Another deep cut was the cover of Van Morrison’s “Bulbs,” which the band recorded for its 2018 album Hard Times Are Relative. It’s not one of Morrison’s most well-known songs, so I’ve always wondered what sort of meaning it holds for Boland. Hopefully one day I’ll get the chance to ask him. I was also thrilled to hear “I Don’t Deserve You,” a catchy love song that’s one of my favorite tracks on Hard Times Are Relative.
Boland and the band always give their all on stage – and I should know I’ve seen this act more than any other in my lifetime (probably nearing double digits) – but the fact that the sweltering heat didn’t seem to take anything out of them other than the buckets of sweat you could see dripping off them from the front barricade just gave me even more respect for them as a live act.
The band, of course, played many of the tunes that they always break out live in concert to the enraptured enjoyment of the long-time fans – many of which made it out to the show and you could kind of tell the difference between those who knew Boland’s music and those just looking for a good time out on a Friday night for free music (the fans were upfront, the newbies in the back in lawn chairs). Among the Boland “classics” were “Pearl Snaps,” “Gallo del Cielo,” “When I’m Stoned” and “Telephone Romeo.”
One of my all-time favorite Boland songs is “Somewhere Down in Texas,” which I’d probably have listed in my top 200 country songs of all time despite the fact many outside of the red dirt country world likely wouldn’t even know it. It’s probably the quintessential Stragglers song to see live. Shouting the line about “Valentino in his cut-off pair of jeans” with other fans of the band is always a “this is why we go to live shows” moment for me.
Boland and the band performed a couple of new songs that have me greatly anticipating the group’s next album – hopefully coming soon. The songs, possibly titled “Next to Last Hank Williams” and “Truest Colors,” have that classic Stragglers sound.
The band didn’t leave the stage and do the whole beg-for-applause thing before coming back to do an encore – no, it was far too hot and sweaty for that on Friday night. Instead, they went right into their three-song encore that began with the ballad “Proud Soul” from the group’s 1999 debut Pearl Snaps. Boland then told the crowd that his mother’s side of the family comes from the Marshall, Ark. area just about two hours up the road and about the tornado around those parts that inspired “Blowing Through the Hills,” one of the band’s most rocking tunes, before burning through a fantastic performance of it. It’s always one of my favorite Boland songs to see live.
The group finished the night with what I think has become my all-time favorite concert closer in “Outlaw Band,” a song penned by Bob Childers, one of “their mentor’s past” as Boland says on the 2010 live album High in the Rockies. I love the tale of a group of loners banding together to form a band, but what really makes the song is the fiddle and mandolin playing, which was done live Friday night by the band’s current multi-instrumentalist Nick Gedra, who really showed off all night long.
The whole current outfit of the Stragglers is truly talented, but so has every formation of the band I’ve ever seen, and the band seems to change a lot other than Boland at the front and bassist Grant Tracy, the only remaining originals. A.J. Slaughter on pedal steel and electric guitar, Jake Lynn on drums and Andrew Bair on keys have all been really nice additions to the band.
I saw the band perform an acoustic show at the Revolution Room in Little Rock early in the year and it was a fantastic treat getting to see them in that aspect having never seen it before, but plugged in and rocking is truly the Stragglers in their natural form.
Everything was hot on Friday night from the outrageous temps to the incredible talent of the entire band and it made for no better way to begin a weekend.
The Argenta Vibe Music Series has two more shows in 2023. The Pine Leaf Boys, a Grammy-nominated Cajun and Creole band from south Louisiana, will perform on Friday, September 22 and The Cleverlys, a bluegrass and comedy group that has been a big hit in Branson, will end the series for the year on Friday, October 27.