Photo and Story by Rick Hiduk
Retro Rocket members Jess Illuzzi (left) and Mike Chapin (right) flank veteran guitarist Bill Kirchen, former member of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, at Gins Tavern on Tuesday evening. Retro Rockets opened the show and members were invited back on stage in varying combinations throughout the evening.
What do Earl Sruggs, Jim Hendrix, Roy Orbison, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Buck Owens, Link Ray, Ray Price and Stevie Ray Vaughn have in common? Career guitarist Bill Kirchen loved them all and literally channels them and many other rock, country, bluegrass, and blues artists through his 1959 Fender Telecaster. He has a damn good time doing it too.
Kirchen, formerly a member of ’60s and ’70s pshyco-billy group Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, performed with Maurice Cridlin and Jack O’Dell and members of locally-based Retro Rocket at Gins Tavern in Factoryville last night to a large and adoring crowd.
Retro Rocket brought patrons out of the dinner hour with a enjoyable set of old-time bluegrass and early country/western songs. Jess Illuzzi handled most of the lead vocals as Mike Chapin and MJ Kuskas played guitar, banjo, and mandolin.
Their set was an authentic throwback to an era of folk and bluegrass music that was not yet altered by too much electrification and amplification. Patrons at my table remarked that it was nice to be able to enjoy the subtleties of an intimate performance without being blown away by it and being able to converse with the person next to you.
From the first cord Kirchin struck, however, it was clear that he came to Wyoming County to rock the house while not just showing respect for but also demonstrating that bluegrass and old-fashioned picking were the roots of a musical journey that helped him build his amazing repertoire as the related genres developed around him.
With just eight days left until Christmas, the band set the tone for good-natured fun by donning Santa hats and opening up with a pair of rockabilly-flavored Christmas songs. Holiday songs were sprinkled liked spiked snowballs throughout the show, including numbers such as “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’,” “Jingle Surfin’ Bells, and “Santa Looks a Lot Like Daddy.”
But it was Kirchen’s unique arrangements of time-honored country-tinged songs that his fans had come to see and which caught those of us less familiar with his work off guard.
I remembered both the old country and rockabilly versions of “Hot Rod Lincoln” from my childhood, and Commander Cody’s 1972 version was a big hit and a daily favorite on the jukebox in the Towanda Middle School cafeteria. So, when our neighbors, Charlie and Nancy, invited us to see Kirchen perform in Factoryville, we obliged them without knowing just what was in store. I had no idea that I was going to be in the company of a living legend.
To say that Kirchen’s guitar playing and the manner in which he harmonizes with himself with one pair of hands was spine tingling is an understatement. Certain riffs and sounds that I had never before heard from a guitar gave me goose bumps many times.
In addition to asking Chapin to play mandolin on a number of songs in Kirchen’s first set, Kirchen invited all three members of Retro Rocket to the stage at the beginning of the second round to perform “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and other songs that demonstrated several ways in which bluegrass found various routes to modern country, including western swing, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and classic blues. Having never endeavored to hone any musical instrument beyond my own voice, I’ve always been impressed by the versatility of talented instrumentalists who can pull of songs together without any rehearsing.
Kirchen is personable and a gentleman. I’m appreciative of the fact that he ended the first set with “Hot Rod Lincoln,” rather than holding off to the end of the show to force people to stick around to hear it. Clocking in at more than seven minutes, the long remake of the song that first put him on the charts pays homage to more superstars of recorded music than can be listed here. What Kirchen and his band made look easy left the crowd breathless and begging for more. That in turn led us sticking around for a good portion of the second set despite the fact that it was a week night.
As much as my body and eyelids were no longer willing, I regret that we did not stay long enough to see Kirchen bring out what was later described as a “funky-ass” horn that he trots through the audience seeking interaction with super-stoked fans. According to Wikipedia, the trombone was the first instrument that Kirchen ever mastered, so I’m sure that it was a delight to hear him play it next to your table.
As one of our hosts said as we made our way out the door and into the frigid night air, “When there’s talent that good around, you just have to be there”
Kirchen’s newest CD, which he autographed for a number of people in between sets, is titled “Down to Seeds and Stems” and features the long version of “Hot Rod Lincoln.” More information about Kirchen can be found at www.billkirchen.com, and interested readers can follow Retro Rocket’s performance schedule on Facebook.
I had not been to Gins in many years and was impressed by updates to the venue and generous portions of very good food. Our server was also very good. It has been terribly cold as of late, and I am sure that many bars and restaurants are struggling to keep their establishments evenly heated. I was grateful that I had on long underwear from head to toe and not surprised to see many patrons keeping their jackets and scarves on while eating and enjoying the music. Despite the heat of the show itself, the bar was a bit chilly. We’re country folk though, so we all survived and will definitely be back for more.