He’s a little bit country. But he’s also a whole lot of rock and roll.
The Charlie Daniels Band dazzled a sold-out Hard Rock Rocksino Saturday night in Northfield with a high-octane set of country rock whose only shortcoming was its brevity.
At 78, namesake bandleader Daniels proved he’s still capable of delivering an incendiary performance that connects with a large crowd and leaves ‘em wanting more. During the course of the ninety-minute Northfield show, the white-bearded Nashville native sang his denim-bottomed bum off and unleashed several of his fiery fiddle solos.
Naturally, signature song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” figured into the evening’s playlist.
But Daniels also availed himself a masterful rock guitarist. In fact, he had a Les Paul strapped ‘round his sturdy frame at least half the time, and used finger picks to trade riffs and leads co-guitarists Chris Wormer and Bruce Ray Brown.
Given the energy emanating from the stage, you’d never have guessed that this was a man who conquered prostate cancer or whose ticker is now powered by a pacemaker. Imagine a green-shirted Santa Claus with a Stetson and sunglasses, and you’d have a mental picture of ol’ Charlie, his gigantic “Jesus is Lord” belt buckle gleaming in the spotlight as he bowed the black fiddle tucked beneath his chin.
The first couple tunes (“Southern Boy” and “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye”) featured Daniels and his fiddle. But it was apparent from the get-go that everyone onstage was an ace, from bassist Charlie Hayward and drummer Pat McDonald to keyboardist Shannon Wickline. Charlie went out of his way to praise his players midway through the set:
“None of this would happen but for these guys back here,” he said, gesturing to the gents around him.
“Legend of Wooley Swamp” (from 1980’s Full Moon) occasioned the first of many jaw-dropping, Santana-styled guitar jams. Daniels’ lyrical wit came to the fore on “(What the World Needs Now) Is a Few More Rednecks” (from 1989’s Simple Man), but then Charlie relinquished lead vocals to Brown, who shined on “Play Me Some Country Blues.”
The self-deprecating Daniels joked about his age and technological naivety. He said his son talked him into buying a computer and starting a website several years ago. Then came the suggestion to open a Twitter account.
“What the hell is a Twitter?” Daniels shot back.
But the veteran session musician acknowledged that he enjoys “tweeting” online:
“As most of you are aware, I have a proclivity to state my opinion,” he beamed.
Daniels has been in the business for over fifty years. He played with Leonard Cohen, fiddled for The Marshall Tucker Band, and guested on three Bob Dylan studio albums.
Daniels explained that his Dylan gig was serendipitous more than anything else: Tapped to substitute for another guitarist at a recording session, Charlie wowed the "Blonde on Blonde" singer so much that he wasn’t allowed to leave.
“I don’t want another guitarist,” Dylan told his producer. “I want that one!”
Daniels said he was grateful anyone, let alone one of the greatest songwriters of our time, would so openly recognize his abilities.
Charlie was cutting his own albums by the early 1970s. He scored a minor hit with “Uneasy Rider” but earned his reputation with the sassy Southern blues rock he whipped up with his namesake band in the years that followed. The 1979 crossover hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” thrust Daniels squarely into the public consciousness, what with its unforgettable inclusion in the John Travolta film "Urban Cowboy" and brought Charlie a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal. He and the band continued exploring country rock in the ‘80s, but he also embraced gospel and Christian music, too.
Daniels saluted Dylan for jumpstarting his career with a spirited cover of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Originally found on Mr. Zimmerman’s 1967 opus John Wesley Harding, the track appears on Daniel’s latest disc, Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan (Blue Hat Records).
The night’s other terrific cover, “Folsom County Blues” saw Daniels and company pay tribute to Johnny Cash. At one point Charlie tweaked the lyrics to cater to the audience, but he referenced Columbus instead of Cleveland. No matter; all the Buckeye fans in attendance appreciated his Penn State Lions dig.
The band switched into high gear on a pair of protracted instrumental numbers. “Black Ice” had Daniels, Brown, and Wormer dueling on guitars with a virtuosity more often found in hard rock and heavy metal. McDonald engaged in a strobe-lit drum solo halfway through that showcased his fluid stick work and double kick-bass prowess, but the percussionist seemed annoyed people weren’t up and dancing just yet.
Celebrating his eleventh wedding anniversary, Wickline worked a bit of honky tonk out of his Nord electric piano. But he also dialed in some funky clavinet sounds, and wrung some church like chords from his Hammond organ. Between Wickline’s busy playing and the guitarists’ triple attack (with blues pentatonic and even neoclassical scales), it’d be unfair to peg Charlie Daniels Band as strictly a country act: There was just so much more going on here.
Our nod for the night’s VIP goes to Brown, whose nimble bass work created the solid rhythms and grooves that allowed everyone else to show off.
Wormer donned a double-neck guitar (six-string and twelve-string) for a romp through Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” Better known as the theme from "The Lone Ranger," the galloping piece packed enough flash and finesse to (finally) bring folks to their feet.
Daniels kept ‘em dancing with “The Devil,” sawing away on his fiddle as if he’d sold his soul for skills, like the song’s protagonist, Johnny.
A pair of mustachioed technicians in black shirts and cowboy hats sauntered onstage between tunes to provide Charlie with whatever instrument he’d need next (guitar, fiddle, mandolin, etc.). Fiddling the hair off his bows, Daniels would proffer the worn sticks behind his back—the signal for an inconspicuous switch-out. It made for a cool visual throughout the show, and the efficiency and economy of motion evinced Charlie’s having been-there, done-that a thousand times before.
It was the onstage equivalent of an Indy race driving pulling in for a pit stop.
Twitter @CharlieDaniels @wormertunes @swicklinemusic