The name “Reverend Horton Heat” is actually a variation of Jim Heath, with a title added at the beginning and one consonant removed from the end — and Horton Heath certainly seems like the kind of person who would chew off the ends of words. Playing at Oakland’s Uptown Nightclub last weekend, he held court for two nights in costumes that might befit a high-school dance in rural Texas: embroidered cowboy shirt on Friday, necktie on Saturday — widow’s peak pointing severely at the audience. Heat’s voice sounds slightly tarnished by age, but that’s only enhanced his pop culture cachet. Especially in Oakland, where nostalgia-based trends seem to have real staying power. So-called “psychobilly” and “punkabilly” music might be a novelty elsewhere, but in these parts, they thrive.
Or so one would think, judging from the filled-to-capacity crowds at Uptown, a medium-size venue with a fairly small stage and a narrow showroom — on nights as packed as the Heat concerts were, it’s almost more advantageous to watch the show from TV screens that dangle over the bar. But that didn’t deter the hundreds who flocked there to catch the Corpus Christi-born singer-songwriter and his trio, which consisted, as always, of stand-up bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla. After a crisp set from supporting rock band Supersuckers, Heat emerged at 11:30 p.m. over a peal of canned horns. He started each night with a wallop, cycling through the best-known hits early on, taking requests from the front row, and dutifully ignoring a fight that broke out in the crowd on Friday (and which resulted in two arrests). The stage lights twinkled, casting a red bordello hue over the grooves in Heat’s forehead. The 53-year-old singer beamed.
Over his three-decade career, Reverend Heat never quite achieved mainstream popularity, though his songs have wound up on car commercials and in the MTV animated series Beavis and Butt-head (whose characters wholeheartedly approved of the song “Wiggle Stick”). He’s perfected the contemporary rockabilly sound that had its renaissance in the 1990s, when fans of fast-paced punk rock suddenly became enamored of old-timey country music, and began filling their CD collections with remastered Hank Williams or Johnny Cash LPs. Heat endeared himself to that market by combining attributes of punk rock with the musical stylings of his predecessors. His songs often have the blistering tempos and fusillade drum fills of punk rock, but the chords are poached from older blues or murder ballads — Heat’s music is riddled with flat-fives and diminished sevenths. Similarly, his lyrics have the same tragic lilt as country, except they’re grittier. Heat will occasionally sing about a woman who done him wrong — “Where in the Hell Did You Go with My Toothbrush?” is his most famous tale of a broken relationship — but he’s more likely to celebrate alcohol or narcotics: One of his best numbers is “Bales of Cocaine” from the irreverent 1993 album The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat.
Such references go over well in Oakland, where Heat’s audience consists largely of guys with Fifties-style pompadours and their pinup girlfriends. According to Uptown owner Larry Trujillo, it was Heat’s first time playing in Oakland — he usually graces larger San Francisco clubs like The Fillmore — so the two-night booking was a coup. And fans shook giddily as he rumbled through opener “Psychobilly Freakout” and the swing tune “It’s Martini Time.” At Saturday’s show, the Reverend was just a speck on the horizon, as hundreds of heads bobbed up and down like identical jack-in-the-boxes.
The only disappointment, according to one die-hard fan, was that Heat started out too strong, so his ninety-minute performances seemed like one long diminuendo. But other people found that appealing. Midway through Friday’s set he reached the slow-dance portion of the show, marked by the boom-cha-cha ballad “In Your Wildest Dreams.” It’s a love song that sounds almost like a ravishment — My breath on your neck/The touch of my hand/You’ll awake in a room of steam, Heat crooned, baring teeth as he enunciated the long “a” on “awaken” — but the notes rattled so unctuously from his Gretsch guitar that audience members were transfixed. Men swayed languidly, sloshing plastic cups of beer, while a couple in the back found just enough floor space to do a slow pas de deux. He followed that with “Jezebel,” another classic that he originally covered on the 1994 LP Liquor in the Front (he told the crowd that his favorite version is the one Ricky Ricardo performed on I Love Lucy). Heat’s version is gruffer and more thunderous, the guitar lines bent, the rhythm sped up, the melody overpowered by Churilla’s kick drum and ride cymbal. But for the lyrics, which are larded with internal rhymes and Biblical references, it could almost be a punk song.
Judicious embellishments to old traditions are the key to Heat’s longevity, though his real talent is for directly imitating, rather than adapting, his antecedents. Heat doesn’t even have to chatter much onstage because his persona carries the day — he’s managed to create a kind of personal lore, not only by devolving into Texas-preacher caricature, but also through his lyrics. “Bales of Cocaine” is about a drug bounty that falls from the sky as he’s pulling carrots and corn from a Texas farm; “Devil’s Chasing Me” is about a devil who pulls up in a long black limousine, and tries to goad Heat into a Faustian bargain. His songs have the same vernacular appeal of Southern Gothic literature, and the characters who populate them ring familiar for any fan of country: waifish women, self-flagellating alcoholics, sinister femme fatales, swindlers in diamond-studded shoes. It’s little surprise that he’d go over well in an area where much of the hipster culture revolves around fantasies of rural America (red meat, flannel shirts, trucker hats), or of the working class.
And Heat’s Oakland fans were, indeed, representative of a specific subculture. While Friday’s show seemed a little more casual, Saturday night drew a lot of people in full rockabilly regalia. The women wore Cleopatra eyeliner and Bettie Page haircuts; the guys wore leather jackets and austerely slicked-back hair; the only thing distinguishing them from 1950s concertgoers was the conspicuous presence of tattoos. While a small sampling of the back row revealed that many had crossed the bridge from San Francisco, others said they lived right down the street. It was the first time that many Oaklanders had seen an A-list rockabilly headliner perform within walking distance of their apartments.
That certainly wasn’t lost on Trujillo, who prides himself on bringing big headliners to the East Bay. And this time he really scored: Considering that Heat has played both The Fillmore and The Warfield, this two-night run was no small feat. (One Twitter detractor dubbed it “tough times.”) But the Reverend seemed amenable. He lengthened his sets by thirty minutes, starting at 11:30 p.m. instead of midnight, and ending right as the clock struck one. On Friday he encored with a rousing cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” just as five police cars rolled up to arrest the two expelled brawlers. Those of us who’d spent the last hour and a half in a time capsule were quickly catapulted to the present.