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L.A. City Beat
June 29th, 2006

Anchoring a corner in one of Sunset Boulevard’s less tony strip malls, Safari Sam’s already feels like a cool drink at the well to this transplanted Appalachian hillbilly. Indeed, pull down the mezzanine (but leave the wreckage), and this spacious box-with-stage looks like a twice-scale model of the Wagon Wheel, a long-defunct West Virginia country-cooze honky-tonk from whose bar I lifted my first illegal beer. Here last Saturday (June 24), by the twos and threes, crept in the elderly hippies, the part-time rednecks, the Inland diaspora, tattooed girls in tight print dresses, hipsters-with-ears, and aligned buckaroos of all ages, both genders, and every ethnicity – yeah, the whole Hee Haw gang – for L.A.’s greatest practitioners of the high-lonesome tonal art, I See Hawks in L.A. and Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men. Looking about me at this friendly, flirty assemblage, I could see a Red State glowing in every heart.

When last I checked on ironists I See Hawks, they were pursuing a nice line in astringent, cannabinoid C&W, with but the merest hint of the cozmik choogle they throw down now. Their third album, California Country, can be filed alongside The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Burrito Deluxe as evocation of the acidhead West; a land of purple trees and hard times, of loss, predation, circling helicopters, and second-generation hippie chix shaking their asses. These Riders of the Purple Booj make honky-tonk sweetness out of this welter of good and bad and worse, with Angeleno THC meditativeness standing in for the beery familiarity of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and the Bakersfield sound.

Sophisticates may sneer (with or without surgery’s aid) and Westsiders squirm, but, like everything beautiful, such numbers as “Motorcycle Mama” and “Houston Romance” provide their own justification. There’s something of Haggard’s whimsical toughness in Rob Waller’s voice, and the songs evince some of Randy Newman’s knack for gone-dead Goya caricature. The eternal Huck Finn penchant for the wistful (“Raised by Hippies”), the tall-tale fantastic (“Slash from Guns N’ Roses”), and the fatalistic (“Jackpot!”) are stylishly indulged on disc, but they’re thrown down like a rock ‘n’ roll barn dance live. Patrons sweated and gripped each other as room temperature rose and outer garments peeled away.

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