It’s been much too long since last I saw Hayseed Dixie live, so long ago I understand there have been several changes in line-up since then! Not that it matters too much, for a band set up to cover classic rock songs in a bluegrass style (and styling it ‘rockgrass’!), as well as adding a few of their own into the mix. Founder and singer/guitarist John Wheeler (aka ‘Barley Scotch’) remains, and the current players alongside him are banjo player Tim Carter, Hippy Joe Hymas on mandolin and fierce expressions, and on acoustic bass is Jake ‘Bakesnake’ Byers. “Hippy” Joe is a scary-looking figure in dungarees (accessorised with patches of classic rock bands including Budgie and Yes!), wild hair, unkempt beard and a habit of pulling tongues Gene Simmons-style, but is a nimble-fingered player. He is also a fast string changer – in one song he snapped a string on the mandolin, continued to the end, but rather than having a tech hand him a backup instrument, changed the string on the spot while ‘Barley Scotch’ covered with a quick shaggy dog story!
Their set takes in covers of many bands, not just AC/DC as the name suggests, all rearranged to suit the instrumentation. Their cover of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has to be seen to be believed, they retain all elements of the song (including the guitar solo as interpreted by “Hippy” Joe!) right down to the ‘I see a little silhouetto’ segment. However, part way through that bit (enthusiastically augmented by the crowd!) it’s broken off for a completely different song, which three of the guys leap into leaving “Hippy” Joe to pick up the setlist off the floor, look at the others with disgust, and then take a swig of his whiskey bottle! They play with a lot of humour, but also terrific musicianship. These guys are all masters of their instruments, and with no drummer the sound they create is all the more remarkable.
To go through all the bands they cover would take up far too much time, but the AC/DC they played included ‘TNT’, ‘Big Balls’ ‘Touch Too Much’ and in the encore, ‘Highway To Hell’. They also cover KISS, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, even Bryan Adams and Ricky Martin (!) All of which served to illustrate their mission, which as stated at the start of the show it was to demonstrate that the ‘Lost Highway’ of Hank Williams and the ‘Highway to Hell’ of AC/DC are the same! There are now other bands doing a similar thing (Hayseed Dixie started up in 2001) which probably surprised Barley Scotch as much as anyone else that not only has his act survived, but inspired others. However, a classic song is a classic song however it is interpreted, and Hayseed Dixie illustrate that brilliantly.
Support was from Emma McGrath, a young singer/songwriter from Harpenden in North London, accompanied only by a drummer (introduced as ‘Alfie’). Strumming a Squier Bullet guitar, she looked a little introverted at first but as her short set progressed, she did start to silence the chatterers in the crowd (many of whom were still streaming into the venue as she played) with her remarkable voice. She is just 18 years of age, but has the mature timbre of somebody nearer 40. Her songs are a bit mellow for the dyed-in-the-denim metalhead still in me, but her quality is clear for all to hear. I found out later she has already featured on BBC Introducing as well as other platforms, so she is definitely heading in the right direction. If you’re going to a date on this tour, get there early and give her a listen.