King of Dieselbilly receives a royal welcome at Palace
Guitarist Bill Kirchen’s epic Saturday night set at the Hilo Palace Theater was a showstopper. He brought along his Too Much Fun Trio, drummer Jack O’Dell and Johnny Castle on bass, to make it an evening to remember.
Part of the appeal of a Kirchen concert is the rich retro tone the titan of twang gets from his custom-made R. C. Kelly Telecaster guitar, which was made with pine from indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s former New York loft. The other delight of his show is a nostalgic setlist laced with honky-tonk tunes about trucks and speedy hot rods.
Kirchen co-founded Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, a pioneering country-rock band with a Top Ten hit in 1972 “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Kirchen grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and migrated with his bandmates to San Francisco in 1969. The band thrived in the Bay Area on hippie rock radio and playing San Francisco’s vibrant concert hall scene.
The Airmen’s first two albums—Lost in the Ozone and Hot Licks, Cold Steel, and Trucker’s Favorites—produced several FM classics, including “Seeds and Stems Again Blues” and “Mama Hated Diesels.” When the group disbanded in 1976, Kirchen pursued a solo career and played with Nick Lowe, Doug Sahm, Elvis Costello, Gene Vincent, Link Wray, and Hoyt Axton.
“I’m the self-crowned King of Dieselbilly because apparently, nobody else wanted the job,” joked Kirchen in a pre-show interview.
Kirchen, 73, now lives in Austin, Texas, and shows no sign of slowing down. He’s survived two bouts with Covid and a recent unfriendly encounter with a local sea urchin here that stung his left hand.
His 180-minute performance at the Palace was filled with brilliant showmanship, dry wit, and a deep well of captivating songs. The crowd showed their approval, and one enthusiastic fan in the front row even brought his Telecaster for Kirchen to autograph after the show.
Both sets had many highlights, including what Kirchen called the “Hazardous Cargo Trilogy” of tunes that dealt with items truckers would haul across the States before they became legal. Kirchen’s cover of Santo & Johnny’s instrumental “Sleepwalk” was stunning.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the evening was an extended 11-minute version of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which featured a savory music mimicry, topped with a soupçon of rapid-fire guitar licks made famous by Roy Orbison, Duane Eddy, Johnny Rivers, Marty Robbins, The Ventures, Iggy Pop & The Stooges, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Link Wray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert King, Ben E. King, Elvis (The King), Cream, Deep Purple, Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Sex Pistols, and Jimi Hendrix. Phew.
Kirchen wrapped up the concert with his animated version of the Dylan standard “The Times They Are a-Changin’’’ A former “folkie,” Kirchen saw Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965. “As a young 17-year-old kid, it wrecked me from normal work from that point on,” confessed Kirchen.
As the trio left the stage, the audience yelled for an encore. One guy started pounding on the stage with his fists. Kirchen didn’t disappoint and returned with his trio for another 20 minutes of music, including a rowdy version of the 1954 hit “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine.”
After the show, Kirchen went to the lobby and spent some personal time with fans eager to meet the guitar legend.
Photos: ©2022 Steve Roby
Visit Bill Kirchen online: https://www.billkirchen.com