I See Hawks in L.A. live at Amoeba Music, May 28
The nine-year survival of I See Hawks in L.A. stands as righteous testimony to a bunch of semieternal truths. 1) Country/roots molds should continue to get busted. 2) Singer Rob Waller and guitarist Paul Lacques have proved you can start something new when you’re not very young, and a goodly number of humans might pick up on it. 3) What would’ve been a major-label act 30 years ago can nevertheless breathe in an indie atmosphere. 4) Talent and persistence will tell.
True as all the Hawks’ four albums have rung (and “Hallowed Ground” ranks as their most complete and satisfying), the recorded form isn’t their biggest strength. On the blind home speakers, occasional peculiarities of subject matter — environmentalism, drug sport, cracked humor — can come off as distractions from country music’s reliable verities. When you see the Hawks live, though, you realize that Waller and the gang are just artists who feel no need to exclude the feelings that hit them deepest, traditional or no.
Waller stands blinking on the stage at Hollywood’s Amoeba Music — whose in-house sound fills the space quite richly these days, by the way. The bins below him prompt an observation: “I feel like we’re playing the Museum of Soul.” Strumming an acoustic or swigging a Corona, his cheeks furred with a lazy-boy beard, he gazes off at some imaginary mountain ridge; he seems not exactly to be performing, more like remembering. What a beautiful baritone he’s got, effortless and masculine, the only voice I can think of that directly references Gordon Lightfoot (one of Bob Dylan’s favorite singers).
The selections usually encompass the main themes of “Hallowed Ground”: love, death, the death of love and the love of death. In the rolling rocker “Carbon Dated Love,” Waller muses on his kinship with a fossilized fern. In the lulling waltz “Never Alive,” he compares himself to inanimate snow, a ghost unborn. “Highway Down” finds him casually digging his own grave. “Good and Foolish Times” pulls off a practiced Hawks contrast — memories of pleasures shared and lost, rendered all the sadder when delivered via the band’s upbeat Waylon/zydeco two-beat pump.
The 2008 version of the group does a hell of a lot with four pieces. The ever-amazing Lacques has his urban-trucker look going, ball cap yanked down over his eyes to suppress his gray hippie locks, picking clean or rocking wild on his favorite brown left-handed Telecaster like a hybrid of Clarence White and Sam Houston Andrew. He sings, too, and incorporating bassist Paul Marshall’s sweet tenor, the Hawks put together many a true mountain harmony. Drummer Shawn Nourse enforces the mandatory Kickin’ of the Shit on the BurritoBerry rocker “Yolo County Airport” (“I’m drunk, I’m stoned and I’m tired/Pretty soon I’m gonna be wired”) and on the Hawks’ apocalyptic carnival ride to Maggie’s Farm on the Mystery Train, “Ever Since the Grid Went Down” (“I went back to smokin’ Marlboro Reds”).
On the album, you get to hear a bunch of seasoned guests filling out the space on pedal steel, fiddle, accordion, pennywhistle and what-all. And you get to hear Ethan Allen’s subtle mixwork, such as the psychedelic guitar overlaps that stretch out the deep country of “Gettin Home Tonight.” In fact, “Hallowed Ground” is one of the best-sounding country-rock records I’ve heard. But if you really want to git it, git it live, too.
— Greg Burk