The comedian who has made a career of antagonizing his audience with some of the most deliberately awkward and lame jokes has stepped up to the mike in recent years to deliver something entirely different but still edgy: hardcore honky tonk music. 2008’s Sings Country Winners was such a “hit” that Neil Hamburger decided that a live recording DVD of his new persona were in order. Along for the ride are an all-star band called the Too-Good-For-Neil Hamburger Band (made up of vets from various gigs backing up the likes of John Fogerty, Link Wray, and the Tubes). Most perversely, the show was recorded in the studio where Bing Crosby recorded “White Christmas”; shortly after this set was recorded the building was finally torn down — to make room for another fast-food joint. The plywood walls add to the gritty retro feel, as does, as you might imagine, the use of black-and-white film.
Given the caliber of the band, it is no wonder that this is a stinging set of classic country, with the pedal steel in full effect (manned by the semi-famous Joe Goldmark), as the kind of western shuffle that made palatable and universal many a sad, doom-leaden country lyric. Hamburger himself is perfect in this role as the sour, disheveled cowboy wringing out his heart to a drunken room.
From spy and jangly tunes like “Back to Fresno” and “Hugh’s Brew” to the more jaundiced “Three Piece Chicken Dinner” and “Recycle Bin,” Hamburger and company play it straight. A plodding, sarcastic cover of the Bee Gee’s “I Started a Joke” went over best with the crowd. Less successful were a couple bad jokes about, of all things, Smashmouth.
Western Music and Variety, aside from strong music, helps showcase Neil Hamburger’s confrontational persona in new ways, beyond his usual fare. It also stands up pretty well as a solid, if skewed, country set. Hasil Atkins would be proud.