Review by Rose Eden
I had had my eye on The Bridge City Sinners for a while before I found out they were touring through town recently with The Goddamn Gallows and Vic Ruggiero & Lauren Napier as support. Having just missed them on their last stop through the Bay Area, I called in a favor and arranged to see their gig at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco, a great venue known for their awesome staff and the ubiquitous pizza smells coming from next door.
The Sinners have gone from a whisper to a full blown force to be reckoned with in the past year and are probably the punkest looking band who aren’t actually a punk band, slinging their own brand of unique crossover folk punk tinged with bluegrass, zydeco, Americana, 20’s ragtime jazz and more. The Portland based act started out busking on the sidewalks of the Pacific Northwest and if you fast forward to today, their self proclaimed “Appalachian Death Folk” has taken them from Punk Rock Bowling to Muddy Roots, to Oregon’s Bluegrass Strings Summit with their 2021 album Unholy Hymns quickly creating a cult like following for the 5 piece act.
The gig was kicked off by the epic combo of The Slackers’ frontman Vic Ruggiero and country folk artist Lauren Napier to a welcoming crowd, the sort of show you go to and see a lot of old friends at and that I did. As I walked in I noticed how diverse the crowd was, everyone from crusty punks to goth girls to rockabilly couples slowly filled the room where I also noticed how long the line was for Sinners’ merch very early on in the show - usually a good but always a curious sign. Propped up demurely on chairs at the lip of the stage with open guitar cases facing them, the occupants of the venue became pin drop silent after Lauren started singing the first few lines of the opening song, Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight”.
There’s something quite remarkable about the way Vic looks at Lauren when she sings. Sure, musicians take bids from and cue off each other onstage all the time, but when you consider someone like Mr. Ruggiero who is arguably one of the greatest subculture singers, songwriters, and keyboard players of our generation and what it may take to impress and or inspire him then well, by the looks on his face Lauren Napier is clearly the answer. Unusual, haunting and oddly soothing, her voice has an outstanding projection quality that fills the entire room and at times gives one the chills but in a good way; like the kind you get when you know you’re witnessing something really special.
The duo performed a roughly ten song set comprised of country western, honkey tonk, and speakeasy jazz, alongside a few covers besides Cline: a Kris Kristopherson classic that was refreshing to hear live for the first time in my lifetime and also The Slackers’ tune “Rider”, one that felt like it had a whole new meaning given the current conflict in Ukraine. It was impressive to watch Ruggerio’s forte for being a one man band with his acoustic guitar and neck harmonica accented by a tambourine on the floor he ever so skillfully maneuvered with his foot. On his solo songs, Lauren would aloofly leaf through a book onstage and the pair would banter back and forth throughout the set, setting up beginnings to songs almost as if they were hosting a Johnny and June style TV variety show. Their set was topped off with members of The Gallows and Sinners joining them onstage, picking up a bass and violin, respectively, to round out what almost became a new 4 piece country band by the end of the tour.
The Goddamn Gallows are the sort of band that command a “goddamn” in their name as they’re a motley crue of caricatures: the singer and his big handlebar mustache, their extra super tall bass player, the long, crazy flowing hair plus wild expressions of the mandolin guy, not to mention their face tattooed drummer, (who would changing into brightly color coordinated lounge suit sets backstage) they almost seem like a modern day version of the Hitchhiking Ghosts from Disney’s The Haunted Mansion - like, if those dudes were in a band, they’d be The Goddamn Gallows.
The Gallows also command some street cred at this point, not only for touring their asses off for the past fifteen years, but also for spotting something inherently great in The Bridge City Sinners early on. Way back in the day it was the Gallows who used to take the Sinners out on tour with them when they were just a baby band, and now things have completely reversed for the two acts who were all collectively buskers and street performers from the very start. The Goddamn Gallows have a story telling lyrical style with each song serving up folky alt country tinged psychobilly and electrifying performances which also sort of leave you wondering if something may have just been summoned. Once I saw them write out their setlists on torn out pages of porno magazines, I knew I was going to be in for a good show.
The different thing about this review is I actually saw this trio of bands twice in a row, one night in San Francisco, then an additional in Sacramento. Equal parts intrigued and mesmerized by the first night watching The Bridge City Sinners, I decided to hit the road and follow them for a more in depth observation. The band of gypsy misfits who were all shockingly young looking for the range of talent they displayed jam packed both venues with eager audiences each night, I told them pretty point blank that I suspected this would probably be the last time I ever saw them in a venue this small or even have easy access to them ever again.
Covered in tattoos with flamboyant nails, gauged ears, and a mischievous Cheshire Cat like smile, lead vocalist Libby Luxury is the face most think of when the band comes to mind. Petite, shy, charming and kind, the singer/banjolele player is absolutely captivating onstage, switching from a sultry purr to a grindcore growl like it’s nothing while leading the band through a lengthy and high energy set list that mesmerizes their audience night after night. As a singer it’s important to learn how to “play” your voice just as well as any instrument, and Libby has mastered the intricacies and nuances of both her range and abilities. I’m unsure if I’ve ever witnessed a crowd so deadlocked onto a live performance almost as if some sort of spell was cast for the 90 minutes they take the stage. Whatever it was, it got me too as I knew after the first gig that I had to see them again as soon as possible.
One of the most distinct things about the Sinners' sound is violin player Lightnin’ Luke, a South Carolina resident and descendent of professional musicians and dancers. Playing what I can best describe as a Civil War style south of the Mason Dixon line countryman fiddle. His intuitive way of layering strings over the band’s intense driving folk melodies is enough to conjure complex emotions in the listener, as if he is some sort of reincarnation from that era brought back to channel a vintage sound through his instrument that refuses to die out with time nor be forgotten. With a long hairstyle and matching beard, wide brim felt hat, and habit of going barefoot on stage, Luke looks the vintage part as well. All aesthetics aside, his contribution holds so much foundational weight I’m unsure if the band would have the same depth without him.
I came across the Sinners in an unusual set of circumstances as they were all in their own ways still reeling from witnessing an overdose at their show in Hollywood just hours before. At the San Francisco show they were all scattered in the cavernous backstage area upstairs at DNA, and seemed a bit nervous and to themselves but no less friendly, welcoming, and generous. By the second night in Sacramento everyone was more themselves again as the banter had gone back to inside and off color jokes as Libby told hilarious stories of her other escapades in Hollywood including ripping the velvet console of a Maserati with the chains on her motorcycle boots and losing her cookies all over the patio of a pizza place in the middle of the night. As I watched her bright and animated expressions recall the “it’s funny NOW” type disaster of a weekend in LA, it was almost as if I could visualize her telling the same tale on the couch of The Tonight Show, she’s clearly such a burgeoning star. Just as naturally as she opened up to people I could tell she also spent an equal if not more amount of time in her head pre-gig, digging around in her fringed leather fanny pack for nail files or picking at a veggie tray on the table backstage. A vegan, I imagine she’s had at least 100 veggie trays backstage in the past calendar year on tour.
Anticipation is not an adequate word to describe the crowd before the Sinners took the stage. The moment they materialized there was an uproar from the audience that never quite settled down throughout their 15 some odd numbered song set. Libby seemed particularly animated both nights, performing is always a release but those two gigs seemed particularly cathartic for her as it did the rest of the band members for obvious reasons. Resonator guitar and banjo players Michael Sinner and Clyde McGee both were hitting fierce down strokes all night - you’d honestly never notice the band has no drummer with the grand amount of noise they produce. Bass player Scott Machaud is somewhat of a marvel to witness, the way he maneuvers his stand up bass is difficult and complex to explain as it almost appears as if he is two-stepping with a woman as he strums along. I’m unsure if I’ve ever witnessed a bass player so naturally flow with such a large and imposing instrument, it’s as if he were born to play that particular rig and if queried I feel as if he’d be inclined to agree, especially considering the huge grin on his face both the gigs.
Highlights of both sets included “Song Of The Siren”, where Luke shined on his fiddle, the ragtime gypsy tune “The Devil’s Swing” where Libby’s doll like voice got the crowd dancing, and “Pick Your Poison” - an emotional choice considering their whirlwind experience in Hollywood. The highly intuitive crowd picked up on it all - in Sacramento there was what appeared to be an endearing grandmother-granddaughter combo planted front and center the entire set, completely mesmerized with eyes locked on Libby the entire time. What’s interesting about shows like these is it’s just as interesting to watch the crowd as it is the performers - there’s just something about this band that affects people to the core. Watching them is sort of akin to a spiritual experience, and I do not say this lightly. It’s almost as if they were destined to meet each other and play music together, to revive and carry on a traditional sound with their own unique way of storytelling.
To top it all off, it’s worth mentioning that while the show was letting out the first night, San Francisco local metal band Hemorage pulled up in their specially converted “metal bus” and played a full set across the street to a gathered crowd and huge mosh pit right on the curb near the corner of 11th and Harrison. Known for “crashing” local metal and hardcore shows by pulling right up to their parking lots and throwing their bus doors and windows open, the spirit of busking and street performing was alive and well at The Bridge City Sinners show, as their fans who stayed until the end actually got two shows in one: one indoors, and one outdoors on the street.
After 2 nights, 2 different cities, 3 bands who played 6 sets, 10 inside jokes, a dozen new friends, (at least) 50 reasons to see them again, 100 hugs, a million beers, I can accurately say that The Bridge City Sinners are headed towards not just success but *super stardom* with their fierce and timeless music, talented musicianship, and charming individual personalities. I’m just glad I can say that I got to see them way back when, and if you get a chance to see them, so should you.
Review by Rose Eden