Photos by Arnie Goodman
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives stopped in New York City for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert show, and stayed over to give us real-time music lovers an incredible, two-hour concert of rock, country, rock, folk, rockabilly and more rockin’ country at the venerable Bowery Ballroom. (A quick word about Bowery Ballroom, which is neither on the Bowery nor a ballroom, but it’s near both, and a really good venue. If you value great sound, courteous personnel and a friendly atmosphere over high-priced drinks, pushy staff and ormolu, check it out.)
Stuart is a student of music and respecter of what has gone before. In that spirit, I believe, the Superlatives dress old-school, this night in pinstripe Western suits, black shirts, sparkly bolo ties and white patent-leather cowboy boots. Before the band came out, we saw those white boots tapping behind the curtain, the men wearing them behaving like racehorses at the gate, impatient to break out and play.
And break out they did, starting with a rousing electric version of “I Know You Rider” featuring vocals that (thankfully) owed more to the Big Three (with Cass Elliot) than to the Grateful Dead. The stellar guitar work and razor-sharp three- and four-part harmonies the band rolled out would continue on throughout the night, with many good-natured duels between the stony-faced guitar genius Kenny Vaughan and the impish Marty Stuart, himself expert on guitar and mandolin.
The third song, “Country Boy Rock and Roll,” led off with a fast riff from Stuart and barreled through the verses at a breakneck pace, with Stuart trading guitar “gotchas” with Vaughan while drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs evoked an entire freight train behind them. Stinson positively levitated from his seat when the song ended, leaving everyone in the house—onstage and off—out of breath.
Stuart & the Superlatives ran through some 18 songs before the encore, and they guys covered a lot of ground in that music: Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (a song covered by the Byrds’ and this night played on a guitar once owned by the great Byrds’ guitarist, the late Clarence White); Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” (Petty’s guitarist produced Stuart & Superlatives’ recent release, Way Out West); several selections from the Way Out West album, including the somewhat psychedelic “Round & Round,” about driving cross country; a straightforward version of “El Paso” (which they learned for guitarist Grady Martin’s Hall of Fame induction); a surf-music instrumental showcasing Vaughan’s guitar mastery—not one wasted note—with the band, and another Ventures-like instrumental as part of the encore. Chris Scruggs (Earle Scruggs’ grandson) traded his bass for one turn on a pedal steel for “Long Black Veil,” a classic despite its bankrupt moral code.
Speaking of classics, naturally Marty Stuart’s past hits made appearances, including “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” and “Tempted.” It’s worth noting that Stuart doesn’t stand there and perform a rigid frontman recital, he interacts constantly with someone, be they bandmates or members of the audience. During the throbbing “Tempted,” I’d bet he flirted with every woman in the room at least once, leaving more than a few ladies at the Bowery a tad breathless and tempted themselves.
Stuart generously shared the spotlight with his bandmates and all three Superlatives sang at least one of their own. We’ve all heard the joke about clearing the room by saying “Now our drummer will sing…” but the surprise of the night was the vocal turn by Harry Stinson, who showed off not only a terrific voice but one of the longest sustained notes I’ve ever heard.
On the negative side, shame on New Yorkers for not selling out this show. It’s hard to say why Marty Stuart plays one night in a 600-seat hall and the Allman Brothers sell out three weeks at the Beacon (capacity 2900), or Tom Petty sells 14,000 tickets to Forest Hills Stadium. I’ve seen them all numerous times, and Stuart’s show is up there with the best. Maybe it’s our New York obsession with fashion and citified mistrust of country music, but Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives play rocking Americana, as do Petty and Allman, and the Superlatives are, well, nothing short of superlative.
Toward the end, the audience started shouting out requests, and Stuart said, “What do you want to hear? We’ve got the day off tomorrow, and we’ll play all night long. We’ll do anything you want.” The band ended the night with the same song they played on Colbert, “Time Don’t Wait On Nobody,” but even harder, louder and more rock and roll. A great song to end a great night.